High Court demands Rabbinate explain Jewish-status investigations

The Chief Rabbinate has initiated investigations into maternal relatives of citizens without them ever having approached it or the rabbinical courts.

Are you jewish enough for the rabbinate (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Are you jewish enough for the rabbinate
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The High Court of Justice demanded that the Chief Rabbinate explain why it conducts Jewish-status investigations into Israeli citizens who have not approached it or the rabbinical courts for their services.
The interim decision by the High Court is the first time the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Courts Administration have been called to account for what amounts to the revocation by these bodies of the Jewish status of hundreds of Israeli citizens.
For many years, the Chief Rabbinate has demonstrated ever greater suspicion towards the Jewish status of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and their children.
It has therefore made increasing use of rabbinical court Jewish status investigations, sending many hundreds of people to undergo this process to clarify their Jewish lineage.
This typically happens after the individual approaches the Chief Rabbinate or the rabbinical courts for a marriage license, sues for divorce or requires another service provided by these institutions.
In cases where the rabbinical court decides they are unable to determine the individual was Jewish, the Chief Rabbinate initially added such people to a blacklist of citizens who are unable to marry under its auspices.
But the Chief Rabbinate also initiated investigations into maternal relatives of such citizens without them ever having approached it or the rabbinical courts, or requested such a process.
It would inform such people about the investigations, and if they agreed would conduct them in full. If they declined, they would be added to its database of relatives whose Jewish status was in doubt.
The practical upshot of being added to the database is that the citizen in question would not be able to register to marry, or conduct any statutory process through the Chief Rabbinate, meaning effectively that their Jewish status had been revoked.
The rabbinical court investigation process has itself been criticized as overly suspicious of the subjects of such investigations, and overly reliant on the documentation of Soviet-era states, officials and clerks, without giving sufficient weight to traditional procedures within Jewish law of evaluating Jewish status.
The database compiled by the Chief Rabbinate has itself been used by the Interior Ministry for determining Jewish status regarding registration as Jewish in the state population registry.
In one case from 2018, two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor and a Soviet-era refusenik had their Jewish status revoked by the Interior Ministry due to determinations made on the basis of Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical court rulings.
Attorney Elad Caplan of the ITIM organization, one of the NGOs that petitioned the High Court of Justice against third-party investigations, said the rabbinical courts are “compiling lists and databases about citizens without their consent,” and the court needed to intervene.
He argued that in no legal system in the country is an institution permitted to conduct such procedures and that this was why the High Court justices demanded the Chief Rabbinate explain and justify why it has undertaken such action.
“Where does the [rabbinical] court get the authority to examine the Judaism of a person who has not applied for a state marriage license or a divorce?” asked High Court President Justice Esther Hayut during the court hearings on the case.
“If there is doubt about an individual’s Jewish identity when he or she applies for a marriage license, the [rabbinical] court should ascertain his or her mother’s name, and conduct an investigation of the mother only,” said Hayut.
ITIM director Rabbi Seth Farber insisted that Jewish practice as determined by Jewish law has been to accept the Jewish status of those who say they are Jewish, and that the Chief Rabbinate is now undermining this position.
“For centuries, the Jewish people has followed the approach delineated in the Shulhan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law] that those who say they are Jewish should be believed and allowed to marry other Jews. This system, based on trust, has maintained the integrity of the Jewish people over generations,” said Farber.
“By rejecting it, the Chief Rabbinate has broken with Jewish tradition, and created a harmful rift in Israeli society. This week’s Supreme Court order gives us hope that the situation can be rectified, that hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union can be recognized as legitimate members of the Jewish people, and that this form of institutionalized discrimination by Israel’s religious establishment can be ended.”
The Chief Rabbinate and Rabbinical Courts Administration have 60 days to respond to the High Court’s demand for clarification.