Israel's conversion ruling: What it does and doesn’t do

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: The ruling, as significant as it may be, does not solve the question that has dogged the country since its establishment: Who is a Jew?

PEOPLE WALK past the Religious Services Ministry office in Jerusalem. At most, this week’s High Court ruling widens the scope of who can become an Israeli through immigration. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PEOPLE WALK past the Religious Services Ministry office in Jerusalem. At most, this week’s High Court ruling widens the scope of who can become an Israeli through immigration.
 A court decision, 15 years in the making, will inevitably land with a boom. It will be labeled momentous, heralded as historic, characterized as a landmark.
That boom will be compounded in Israel when the issue being adjudicated has to do with that very fraught topic of religion and state. And that compounded boom will be amplified even further if the decision comes just three weeks before an election.
And that is predictably what happened this week when the High Court of Justice handed down an 8-1 decision on Monday ruling that conversions performed in Israel by the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements will be recognized for purposes of citizenship. In other words, people undergoing Reform or Conservative conversions in Israel will be recognized as Jews under the Law of Return, meaning that they and their immediate families, including grandchildren, can make aliyah.
Some have hailed the ruling as a victory for religious pluralism in Israel, others as a step toward the bifurcation of the Jewish people. Some say it will heal rifts with Diaspora Jewry, others that it will deepen them. Some say it will change the face of Israel, others that it will do nothing of the kind. It is worth, therefore, looking at what the ruling is and will do, and what it is not and will not do.
The ruling, as significant as it may be, does not solve the question that has dogged the country since its establishment and comes back every few years in various permutations: Who is a Jew?
At most, the ruling widens the scope of who can become an Israeli through immigration. If up until now the doors of Israel were open to anyone born Jewish or who converted abroad in a recognized community in either Orthodox, Conservative or Reform conversions, now those doors will be open to anyone born Jewish or who converted in Israel as well in an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform ceremony.
The ruling does not deal with the halachic status of the converts as it relates to issues of marriage, divorce or burial. It relates to the narrow issue of converts as Jews for citizenship purposes, and how they can define themselves in their identification card.
Though opponents of the ruling are saying that this will lead to tens of thousands of African workers in the country rushing to Reform and Conservative conversion courts in Israel in search of easy citizenship, the movements themselves argued before the court that this is not their intention, and that their primary interest is in converting non-Jews who are already in the country and married to Jewish Israelis. As such, there is little expectation that the decision will lead to a mad rush for these conversions.
Since there is not expected to be a sudden explosion of these types of conversions, one could argue that the importance of the ruling is symbolic: recognition by the state, though not the rabbinic establishment, of the Reform and Conservative movements. By recognizing the legitimacy of the conversions in Israel, the state is thereby recognizing the legitimacy of those movements. That is an important symbol, and one that the haredi establishment has been fiercely trying to prevent for years.
In fact, the 2016 compromise allowing for an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall fell apart largely because it called for the establishment of a 13-member council to oversee the site that would include representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements.
More than the existence of a separate prayer section at the Wall itself, what infuriated the haredi parties – and led them to threaten Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition with collapse if the compromise was carried out – was membership on an official state committee of representatives from the two non-Orthodox movements, and the interpretation that this was tantamount to official state recognition of those movements.
The Reform movement took a “victory lap” of sorts back then – claiming that it had gained recognition – that boomeranged, because this interpretation of the move compelled the haredim to push back extremely hard and threaten Netanyahu’s government.
At the time the Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Jewry praised the deal in a letter on its website as nothing less than “official recognition by the Israeli government of the vital role Reform and Conservative Jews play in the religious life of the Jewish state.”
This time the movement, wisely, was a bit more low-key, with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, issuing a statement saying, “the Court has affirmed the reality that the Jewish people are stronger because of the contributions of Reform and Conservative movements and their commitment to bringing more Jews into the Jewish people. We hope this ruling establishes a precedent that will lead to further recognition of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.”
Notice the subtle but important difference between this statement and the comments that followed the announcement of the Western Wall compromise. The latter said that recognition was granted; the former, that this is one step toward recognition. Which it is.
ANOTHER THING this ruling is not is an overreach by an activist court. This issue has been kicking around since 2005. The court made it clear that it did not want to rule on such a cardinal issue, but had to step in because the Knesset was unable to make up its mind on this highly sensitive and politically charged issue. A vacuum was created, and the court stepped in to fill it.
Some are arguing that the court should have waited until after the March 23 elections, and that by issuing the ruling now, it was somehow trying to interfere with the election.
There are two problems with this argument. The first has to do with timing. Israel has now effectively been in one big election cycle since the Knesset dissolved in December 2018, which means that any time the court would have handed down this decision since then could have been interpreted as “too close to elections.”
The second problem with this argument is that the ruling is unlikely to have much of a political impact. Religion-and-state issues are already on the agenda, but having to do more with widespread flouting of the coronavirus regulations by segments of the haredi community, an inability of the central government to extend its authority to certain haredi communities, and whether cities should have the right to open grocery stores and enable public transportation on Shabbat.
Yisrael Beytenu, Meretz, Yesh Atid and Labor were all in various degrees running on these issues before the court decision, so it is hard to see how throwing one more religion-state issue into the mix, especially one that impacts the lives of Israeli voters less than the others, is going to significantly sway the vote.
On the other side of the spectrum, haredi voters did not need this decision to work them up and energize them to come out and vote for the haredi parties; they were going to do that anyhow. Nor were those opposed to judicial activism waiting on the edge of their seats for one more court decision to vote for one of the right-wing parties opposed to that activism; they were also going to vote for those parties already.
No, the decision will likely not have an impact on the election results. But it will likely have a huge impact on coalition building after the election. Shas and United Torah Judaism have already made it clear that a law overriding the ruling will be a condition of their entering into a coalition.
If history is any indication, this will not be a problem for Netanyahu, who did a U-turn on the Kotel issue because of haredi demands. But how about if either New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar, Yamina’s Naftali Bennett or even Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid is mandated with forming a government and either wants or needs the haredim inside the coalition? In that case, this demand will badly complicate matters.
And, finally, there is the issue of how this ruling will impact Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry.
If one subscribes to the belief that a major reason for the much-trumpeted “rift” between Israel and Diaspora Jews is the state’s refusal to recognize the pluralistic streams of Judaism, then this decision should be a great help.
If, for instance, the Knesset does not reverse the ruling and it holds, and such conversions are performed in Israel and recognized by the state for citizenship purposes, then – according to those who say that the issue of a lack of religious pluralism in Israel is an impediment to strong ties with Jews aboard – we should all of a sudden see an outpouring of support for the Jewish state.
Don’t count on it. Although there is no denying that many Reform and Conservative Jews in the US genuinely feel insulted and slighted that the Jewish state does not officially recognize their forms of Judaism, and that they cannot pray the way they want at the Western Wall, this is not the reason for the much discussed gap between Israel and world Jewry. The state has never recognized those streams of Judaism, yet the gap was never so large in the past.
Rather, nonrecognition of the liberal streams is only one of a number of issues driving this wedge, with the main one being a lack of Jewish identity in Diaspora communities.
Jews abroad with a strong Jewish identity will identify with Israel, even if it takes policies they disagree with. Jews who have no Jewish identity will not, and the question of whether or not Reform or Conservative conversions are accepted is not going to change their attitude to a state they feel no religious or historic connection to.
But while the ruling may not bring Diaspora and Israeli Jews closer together, if the government – for political purposes – overrides it, then that will have a detrimental impact. Again, while the average Reform or Conservative Jews in the US may not really be all that concerned about this issue, since it may not directly impact them at this moment, the issue will likely be of great content to their rabbis, who will discuss it negatively in sermons and in letters to congregants.
Netanyahu, as it is, does not enjoy overwhelmingly popular support from a number of Conservative and Reform pulpits – partly because of his embrace of former US president Donald Trump, partly because of his reversal on the Kotel issue, and partly because of his right-wing politics. If he is elected again and, to form a government, pushes through legislation that will reverse this court ruling, that will certainly make a tough situation even tougher.