Government wants more time on Reform conversion issue

High Court gives state one month to propose new conversion panel.

high court 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
high court 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
A panel of nine justices led by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch on Sunday gave the state 30 days to flesh out its proposal to establish a second Neeman Committee to resolve the dispute between the state, the Rabbinate and the Progressive (Reform) and Conservative movements over who has the right to convert. The Neeman Committee was established in June 1997 by then-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in an attempt to solve the problem of registration of Reform and Conservative converts as Jews. The decision came at the end of a brief hearing on 12 petitions submitted by the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel, the World Union of Progressive Judaism and 12 individual petitioners. The petitioners are asking the court to order the Interior Ministry to register them as citizens in accordance with the Law of Return after they studied Judaism in local Progressive conversion courses and were converted by a Progressive beit din (religious court). This is the final stage in a court battle the Progressive and Conservative movements have waged for more than a decade to force the Interior Ministry to grant official recognition to converts to Judaism by rabbis of the two non-Orthodox movements. So far, the High Court of Justice has forced the ministry to register as Jews people who converted to Judaism in their home communities abroad and then immigrated to Israel. It has also compelled the ministry to register as Jews people living in Israel and having the status of citizens or residents who were converted to Judaism by Progressive and Conservative rabbis either abroad (known as "stopover" conversions) or by the movements' rabbis in Israel. Now the showdown has come over the most important issue of all - whether or not Progressive and Conservative rabbis have the right to conduct conversion classes in Israel and convert to Judaism non-Jews who are in Israel legally but are not citizens, thus obliging the Interior Ministry to grant them automatic citizenship in accordance with the Law of Return. In a response submitted to the High Court on November 2, the state's representative, attorney Yochi Gnessin, announced in one paragraph at the end of a 15-page response to the petition that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had decided to establish "a public committee headed by Prof. Yaakov Neeman, in a format similar to the previous one. The committee will examine the lessons learned from the implementation of the first committee's recommendations, will hear the opinions of those who have an interest in the issue, including representatives of the various religious streams, and will try to formulate agreements and arrangements that all can agree upon regarding this matter." In their petitions, the local and world Progressive movements argued that there was no law that granted the Orthodox stream a monopoly on the right to convert to Judaism. Furthermore, in one ruling after another, the High Court of Justice had upheld this position and ruled in their favor, they said. In its response, the state maintained that the question of conversion to Judaism, which automatically led to Israeli citizenship and all the other rights included in the Law of Return, was too serious a matter to be left to private conversion procedures. The state must have control over this matter because the implications of conversion that led to citizenship according to the Law of Return had national consequences and implications of the most fundamental kind, the state said. Although the members of the 1997 Neeman Committee did not sign the recommendations, the government and the Knesset endorsed them. In accordance with the recommendations, the government established a conversion school with teachers from all three principal streams of Judaism, and a system of conversion courts nominally under the charge of the Prime Minister's Office. This, wrote Gnessin, was the state system of conversion and only it should be in charge of conversions leading to automatic citizenship according to the Law of Return. The petitioners argued that the conversion system was not a state system but rather a state-Orthodox system in which all the dayanim (rabbinical judges) on the conversion courts were Orthodox. This system violated the definition of "Who is a Jew" given in the Law of Return, which defined a Jew as one who was either born of a Jewish mother or converted, they said, and did not state that the conversion must be an Orthodox one. To grant a monopoly to the Rabbinate was to violate the Basic Law: Human Freedom and Dignity, which guaranteed freedom of religion and was based on the value of equality, the petitioners maintained. During Sunday's hearing, the attorneys for the Progressive Movement, Nicole Ma'or and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, agreed to Beinisch's suggestion to give the state time to submit a serious proposal for another Neeman Committee. But based on their written response, they were skeptical about its usefulness. "It should be noted that the petitioners learned of the prime minister's intention only from the state's response to the petition," they wrote. "The prime minister did not mention anything to the representatives of the movements about the idea. This fact strengthens our feeling that the only purpose of updating the committee's deliberations is to waste time. This is typical of the way the state has dealt with the conversion question, in view of the Knesset's ongoing refusal to turn the government's position into law.... "Without wishing to give a categorical 'no' to a proposal that has not yet been formulated, we have grave and fundamental doubts as to whether there is even any purpose in dusting off and resurrecting the Neeman Committee. For, in contrast to the prophecy of the dry bones by Yehezkel the prophet, the committee will not be imbued with a new spirit. One way or the other, the petitioners ask the court not to help the state in its deliberate procrastination." Beinisch gave the state one month to submit its proposal and another month for the petitioners to respond. On the basis of the written briefs, she said she would decide whether to issue a show-cause order instructing the government to give a more detailed response, to the petitions. If necessary, she added, she would hold another hearing before deciding whether to issue a show-cause order. The hearing would be held soon after the petitioners submit their reply, she said.