Reform, Masorti movements to insist High Court rule on conversion case

Deadline for postponing decision on 2005 petition requesting Israeli citizenship to non-Israeli nationals who convert in Israel with the non-Orthodox movements, falls later this month

High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020 (photo credit: COURTESY HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE)
High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020
The Reform and Masorti (Conservative Judaism in Israel) movements are set to request that the High Court of Justice rule on a 15-year-old petition over state recognition for non-Orthodox converts to receive citizenship. The development likely will spark a conflagration in the government and with Diaspora Jewry.
People who underwent Reform and Masorti conversions in Israel are recognized in the population registry as Jewish, while Reform and Conservative converts who converted outside of Israel are recognized for the purposes of citizenship.
But in 2005, the two non-Orthodox denominations filed a petition to the court demanding that anyone who converts through their conversion systems in Israel, but who does not have Israeli citizenship, should be granted citizenship through their conversions under the law of return, just like Orthodox converts.
After many years of delay, it appeared in 2017 that the court was ready to rule on the case, involving several of the converts themselves.
Fearing that the court would indeed grant the demands of the non-Orthodox movements, the Shas Party introduced legislation that would revoke all legal standing for non-Orthodox converts and deny them citizenship under the law of return, preemptively circumventing the expected ruling.
The law was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation for passage to the Knesset, setting off a severe crisis with US Jewry, whose leadership vehemently opposed the bill due to the sensitivities over Jewish identity and status.
Coming at the same time as the indefinite suspension of the Western Wall agreement and the crisis over that issue, Shas agreed to freeze its legislation if the non-Orthodox movements would request that the High Court hold off on ruling on the petition, which they did.
In the interim, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed former justice minister Moshe Nissim to formulate new proposals to resolve the conversion conundrum, which he did in June 2018. But his plan was rejected by all major players – the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), hard-line and moderate religious-Zionists and the non-Orthodox movements – as either giving too much control to the Chief Rabbinate or not enough.
The deadline for requesting a new postponement from the court is July 19.
On Wednesday, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform movement in Israel, and Dr. Yizhar Hess, director of the Masorti Movement, both told The Jerusalem Post they were no longer willing to postpone the court’s decision.
Both the Reform and Masorti movements conduct only a handful of conversions for noncitizens every year. But the granting of citizenship to them by the court would have a heavy political impact due to the vehement haredi opposition to any form of recognition for progressive Judaism in Israel.
The petition also includes petitions regarding instances when Israeli citizens seek to adopt children born in Israel who can only be adopted by families of the same religion.
In some instances where the mother giving up the baby for adoption is not Jewish and the adopting Jewish family wants to convert the baby, it has been impossible for them to do so through the Reform movement, causing the adoption process to fail.
The court has bound this issue together with that on citizenship, as well as problems with registration in the population registry, and it would issue a decision on all these cases.
The Nissim proposals have been rejected, and no progress has been made on this issue for an extended period of time, Kariv said. Therefore, it was right to proceed with the decision for the sake of the converts who want Israeli citizenship and the rights of progressive Judaism in Israel, he said.
In 2016, the High Court ruled that an individual who converted through a non-state, independent Orthodox rabbinical court must be granted citizenship under the Law of Return. The non-Orthodox movements believe the court is likely to rule similarly in their case.
Kariv said he was not concerned about any legislation the haredi parties might seek to advance if the Reform and Masorti movements rescind their agreement to delay the decision.
“Should we be satisfied with half the equality and half the rights of others because they might take away all of our equality and rights?” he asked. “We need to move towards full equality of all Jews in the State of Israel. If the government passes legislation to get around this, then on their own heads be it – that is their responsibility.”
Recent governments have “always threatened that a law will be passed if we are not ready to wait forever,” Hess said, adding that the patience of the progressive movements was now at an end.
If legislation is attempted to block, or preemptively block, such a decision, the non-Orthodox movements would enlist the help of Diaspora Jewry to help them fight against such measures, he said.
There has been “a complete cessation of ties” by the Prime Minister’s Office with the Reform and Masorti movements since 2017, Kariv said, which he attributed to Netanyahu and his governments having “broken all promises and commitments they made to us on several issues.”
A spokesman for Shas said the party would examine what direction to take once the deadline expires.