Conversion ruling inevitable clash of democracy with sectarian monopoly

During those fifty years, calls for greater religious pluralism for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel have grown ever louder,

At the ceremony marking the 100th ordination of a graduate from Hebrew Union College’s Israeli Reform rabbinical program (photo credit: PR)
At the ceremony marking the 100th ordination of a graduate from Hebrew Union College’s Israeli Reform rabbinical program
(photo credit: PR)
Monday night’s dramatic ruling by the High Court of Justice affording citizenship to non-Israeli nationals who convert through non-Orthodox denominations in Israel was 50 years in the making.
It is also the inevitable result of the friction witnessed in the state for decades now between the monopoly enjoyed by the Orthodox establishment and the principles and values of democracy.
And the ferocious reaction to the ruling by the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political parties underlines their fervent desire to preserve their grip on religious life, since the number of non-Israeli nationals who convert through the non-Orthodox movements every year is minuscule, numbering around 30 to 40 souls.
In 1970, the Law of Return was amended to grant converts to Judaism the right to citizenship in the Jewish state. But the definition of what conversion is, how it needs to be done and who should do it was never established, not when the amendment was passed and not in the half century since.
During those 50 years, calls for greater religious pluralism for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel have grown ever louder, while in parallel the efforts of the Orthodox establishment, both its haredi and religious-Zionist components, to hold on to their monopoly have grown ever stronger.
So, despite the hundreds of thousands of people in Israel who either cannot get married through the Chief Rabbinate or do not wish to do so, the Orthodox political parties have intensely resisted allowing for civil marriage for many years.
The Orthodox parties have also put up intense resistance to the recognition of non-Orthodox conversion, but also to more minor issues that would seemingly have little effect on the Orthodox community, such as state funding for non-Orthodox communal rabbis and even the use of state-funded mikvaot (ritual baths) by the non-Orthodox denominations.
And the apotheosis of the Orthodox struggle against the non-Orthodox was over prayer rights at the Western Wall, a purely symbolic issue that, again, would not affect Orthodox Israelis.
The non-Orthodox movements sought a separate prayer area at the site, but not part of the main Western Wall Plaza we know today, to be recognized by the state as a prayer area for progressive Jewish prayer.
After initially agreeing to this arrangement, the haredi parties and hard-line elements of the religious-Zionist parties backtracked and forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to tear up the agreement he had lauded as a solution to the problem.
The stance of the Orthodox parties has been greatly aided by Israel’s electoral system, which enables small parties, often the most sectoral in character, to exert their positions on the majority of the citizens.
So, for example, some 68% of the adult Jewish public in Israel supports provision for civil marriage according to a Hiddush poll in 2019, including 60% of Likud voters. But any effort to pass legislation on the issue is shot down by the Orthodox parties in the government.
The values of democracy require, however, that there be equality before the law.
If Orthodox rabbis can get paid by the state for their services, then so, too, can non-Orthodox rabbis, and so the courts ruled.
If the Orthodox public gets to use state-funded mikvaot, then so should the non-Orthodox public, and so the courts ruled.
If Orthodox prayer groups can pray at the Western Wall, then so can non-Orthodox prayer groups, and so the courts ruled, albeit in a less comprehensive manner than the progressive Jewish denominations have sought.
And if non-Israeli nationals who convert in an Orthodox manner in Israel can get citizenship through the Law of Return, so, too, can non-Orthodox converts, and so the court ruled Monday night.
Ultimately, in a democracy, if one religious denomination can obtain legal rights and recognition for its ceremonies and services, then other denominations must be allowed the same.
As the High Court justices wrote in their ruling, the non-Orthodox movements have well-established, if small, communities with a Jewish identity, maintain communal Jewish institutions, conduct conversions in an organized and controlled manner and are part of broader global non-Orthodox denominations.
Being a well-established part of the Jewish world and people, how is it justifiable in a democracy to deny such a denomination rights enjoyed by others? The High Court ruled on Monday that it is not.
This ruling was foreshadowed by a similar ruling in 2016 for non-Israeli nationals converting through Orthodox but non-state rabbinical courts. The courts adjudicated in favor of the democratic principle of equality before the law regarding state financing for non-Orthodox rabbis, access to mikvaot and other issues.
And more is likely to come, with civil marriage being the next domino to fall.
Ultimately, the parties that represent the Orthodox public either have to live with the principles of democracy and accept that their monopoly over religious life in the Jewish state is untenable, or work to undermine that democracy.
All three heads of the explicitly Orthodox parties – United Torah Judaism, Shas and the Religious Zionist Party – immediately vowed to do the latter Monday night and pass a “High Court override law” to revoke the newfound equality for the non-Orthodox movements.
But those parties would also do well to heed the evidence demonstrating that the more they have fought to preserve their iron grip on Jewish life in the Jewish state, the more the general public has distanced itself from their views, evidenced by the widespread support for civil marriage.
The State of Israel seeks to be both Jewish and democratic, a desire that has been difficult to reconcile on many levels.
This latest chapter on conversion underlines those difficulties and, in particular, the failure of the country’s leadership to ever engage in a real national dialogue as to how to resolve its numerous contradictions.