An expanded nine justice panel of the High Court of Justice ruled on Monday to recognize conversions by the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel for the purposes of citizenship, ending a 15-year legal saga.
Eight of the nine justices agreed with all aspects of the landmark ruling, while Justice Noam Sohlberg preferred to delay applying it for 12 months from the swearing in of a new government.
The decision set off a firestorm of criticism from Orthodox political parties who vowed to pass legislation to overturn the ruling and threatened not to enter any coalition without promises to do so, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party also denounced the ruling.
Reform and Masorti leaders as well as liberal and left-wing political parties lauded the decision however calling it a victory for democracy and a blow against the Orthodox religious establishment.
Monday night’s decision was fifteen years in the making, after the Reform and Masorti movements filed a petition to the High Court in 2005 demanding that citizenship be granted to several non-Israeli nationals who converted through their conversion systems in Israel.
In 1988, the High Court ruled that non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel must be recognized for the purposes of aliyah and citizenship, but did not extend that recognition to non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israeli itself.
According to the Reform and Masorti movements, they perform only 30 to 40 such conversions every year, approximately ten percent of all non-Orthodox conversions annually.
Trying to pre-emptively defray criticism, the High Court said in its ruling Monday night that it had no religious implications and only dealt with the secular-law questions of the right to obtain citizenship.
Further, the justices specifically noted the 15-years in which the Knesset had not acted to resolve the issue as a clear sign that further patience would not help and that, however grudgingly, the judicial branch had to step in to resolve the dispute.
The justices wrote that the non-Orthodox movements have well established communities with a Jewish identity in Israel, maintain communal Jewish institutions, conduct conversions in an organized manner, and are part of broader non-Orthodox denominations around the world.
The justices noted that the Knesset extended the Law of Return and Israeli citizenship to converts back in 1970, but had failed since then to define exactly what conversion means and who can perform it.
As long as the legislature has not determined otherwise, those who convert in Reform and Conservative communities in Israel should be recognized as Jews for the purpose of the Law of Return, wrote the justices.
Taking a shot at the political class, the justices also said that their ruling only applied as long as the Knesset did not pass a law explicitly denying the Jewishness of non-Orthodox converts, which the Haredi parties in the Knesset have now promised to do.
The High Court also noted the extremely lengthy period of time since the petition was first filed and the numerous requests by the state to delay a ruling while it seeks to find a legislative solution.
It said, therefore, that there was no reason to further delay a ruling.
Coming three weeks before elections, has now sparked a huge conflagration between Israel’s political parties and the fallout will have ramifications for Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry, in particular the predominantly non-Orthodox US Jewish community.
Netanyahu’s Likud party issued a statement saying that the decision “endangers the Law of Return, and by extension Israel’s foundation “as a Jewish and democratic state.”
Shas leader and Interior Minister Arye Deri called the decision “wrong,” said it would cause “A severe rift among the Jewish people,” and vowed to “amend the law so that only conversion according to Jewish law will be recognized in the State of Israel.”
The heads of United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni and Housing and Construction Minister Ya'acov Litzman made similar promises.
“The decision of the High Court to recognize for the first time Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel is disastrous for the meaning of the term Jewish state,” they stated.
“Throughout the generations the Jewish people knew how to recognize their religion and faith without forgeries or imitations. That is how it will continue into the future,” the continued and vowed like Deri to pass legislation to override the High Court decision, adding that they would not enter any coalition without promises to pass such a law.
Religious Zionist Party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich described the ruling as “outrageous” and said the High Court had exceeded its boundaries.
“No one authorized it [the court] to make decisions on questions of substantive values which touch the heart of of the identity of the State of Israel,” said Smotrich.
Yamina leader MK Naftali Bennett did not respond directly, although a statement put out in the name of the Yamina party criticized the High Court for “interfering in government decisions and forgetting it’s role.”
Gidon Saar’s New Hope party said however that it would “study the decision and its consequences,” adding that the ruling was was a result of the “inability of the Netanyahu government to make decisions” and noting that the current government had failed to even discuss recent proposals made by a Netanyahu appointee to resolve the issue.
Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau both denounced the ruling, with the former saying the decision “harms the wholeness of the Jewish people,” adding that “What the Reform and Conservatives call conversion is nothing but the forgery of Judaism the meaning of which is the entry of thousands of non-Jews into the Jewish people.”
Lau said that “Reform converts and their like are not Jews and non High Court decision will change this fact,” and similarly to Yosef said Israel would be flooded with “non-Jewish immigrants.”
The Reform and Conservative movements have repeatedly insisted that they follow strict guidelines regarding converting non-Israeli nationals and note that they perform just several dozen such conversions every year.
Opposition parties of the center and political Left welcome the decision however.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said that "Israel must have complete equality of rights for all streams of Judaism - Orthodox, Reform or Conservative,” and that “We need to live here together with tolerance and mutual respect.”
Director of the Reform Movement in Israel Rabbi Gilad Kariv who is also, fourth on the Labor party’s electoral list, lauded the ruling, saying the court decision was a boost for democracy and the Jewish character of the state.
“The High Court defended the core values of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and as a democratic state that is obligated to provide freedom of religion and conscience for its people in the verdict,” said Kariv.
“In the ruling the High Court retained the simple fact that since Israel was established the Knesset has avoided giving the Rabbinate a monopoly regarding conversion to Judaism, and we will make sure that this will remain in the future. The decision doesn’t impose anything onto the Rabbinate or onto the Orthodox communities, yet it claims in what should have been obvious: the State of Israel, as the state of the Jewish people, needs to respect the different religious communities within the people equally and without discrimination.”
Meretz leader MK Nitzan Horowitz declared that the leaders of the Orthodox political parties no longer had a monopoly over Judaism.
“From now you also do not have the only entry keys to Israel. This is an important step in the dismantlement of the Orthodox monopoly over our lives and great news for Israeli citizens and the entire Jewish world.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the Itim religious services organization, said the ruling “rightly respects the diversity of the Jewish community,” but that it was a ruling of the religious establishment’s own making.
“It was only necessary because Israel's Chief Rabbinate has created a conversion crisis. One can only hope that going forward, the Rabbinate will provide reasonable conversion alternatives to bring people closer to Jewish tradition, rather than have its hand forced by the civil courts.”
The liberal religious-Zionist organization Neemane'i Torah Va'Avoda said the ruling was “foreseeable due to the long term ultra-Orthodox obstinacy” over conversion.
“It is a pity that when politicians are unable to agree on a solution, they pass it on to the court to do the job in their stead. We hope that the religious-Zionist public will learn their lesson and in future will not hesitate to take the initiative and lead in matters of religion and State.”