A major milestone

The High Court of Justice ruling recognizing private Orthodox conversions redefines the boundaries of public discourse in Israel on religion and state.

Protester holds a poster demanding equal rights for all Jews (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protester holds a poster demanding equal rights for all Jews
(photo credit: REUTERS)
IN LATE March, at the height of the political storm around the government’s decision to allow a prayer space for women and non-Orthodox streams at the Western Wall, the High Court of Justice made a highly significant ruling ordering the state to recognize conversions to Judaism by Orthodox rabbinical courts outside the purview of the Chief Rabbinate and allow the converts to claim Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
On the face of it, the court’s ruling has no bearing on the debate over the establishment of an egalitarian prayer space at the wall. But in practice, the two issues taken together redefine the boundaries of public discourse in Israel on religion and state.
This major development will probably take some time to filter down into public and political consciousness. But the winter of 2016 will likely be remembered as one of the major milestones of Israel’s long and tortuous march along the road to religious pluralism.
From a legal point of view, the verdict constitutes a direct extension of the court’s previous ruling that conversions conducted in “a recognized Jewish community” abroad – whether it be Orthodox, Reform or Conservative – will be considered valid in Israel.
This principle informed the court’s decisions on all the petitions submitted over the years by non-Orthodox movements in Israel. For example, the court ruled that people who began the conversion process in Israel and completed it in a Diaspora community would be recognized as new immigrants and that Israelis who underwent Reform conversions in Israel would be registered as Jews in the population registry.
What is new and highly significant in the court’s latest ruling is that it imports in clear and absolute terms the constitutional concept of a “recognized Jewish community” into Israel, and that the right of a recognized Jewish community to conduct valid conversions applies not only to Jews in the Diaspora, but to Israeli society as well.
The government’s ongoing attempt to create a distinction between the pluralistic reality of Diaspora Jewry and the Orthodox establishment’s monopoly in Israel, which it continues to enshrine, was explicitly rejected by the court.
The court’s decision to rule first on the validity of private Orthodox conversions reinforces its questioning of the Orthodox establishment’s state-granted religious monopoly. Precisely because there is an option for Orthodox conversion within the establishment framework, the court’s recognition of the validity of private Orthodox conversions outside the establishment framework is in fact a recognition of the right in principle of religious communities in Israel to conduct their own affairs and an explicit rejection of the Orthodox establishment’s right to a monopoly on issues of religion and state.
Given the legal precedent created by the court’s ruling, it is difficult to see how it can avoid applying this same key principle on conversion processes to religious communities of all streams in Israel, including Reform and Conservative.
Beyond the narrow legal aspect, the ruling is in line with the Supreme Court’s major ideological endeavor over the past few decades to define Israel as the state of Jewish people in all its streams and communities.
Of course, the court’s hands are tied with regard to the freedom of choice of Israeli couples in marriage and divorce.
The Knesset passed a law on this back in the 1950s.
But in lieu of a similar law stipulating that only Orthodox state-sponsored conversions are valid in Israel, the Supreme Court has taken on itself the key strategic function of creating a vocabulary to express the readiness of the majority of Israelis and world Jewry to recognize the many faces of 21st century Judaism.
In so doing, the court is playing not only an important democratic role, but also a Zionist role par excellence. Its rulings on the conversion issue are slowly adding up to a formative expression of the basic Zionist principle that Israel was and is meant to be the state of the entire Jewish people.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demands that the Palestinians recognize this principle. The Supreme Court implements it in practice and in a way that corresponds to Israel’s democratic values and the spirit of its Declaration of Independence.
Not surprisingly, the court handed down its verdict on the eve of the Knesset’s winter recess. But with its return for the summer session immediately after the 68th Day of Independence in mid-May, the political debate over religion and state will resume in all its fierce intensity.
The government’s decision over the prayer space at the wall and the court’s ruling on conversions will be at the center of attention. Despite the obvious differences between the two issues, both touch on the same question of principle: Does the state of Israel want to allow a foot in the door and a sense of feeling at home to all the Jewish people’s streams and communities, or just some of them? In its latest verdict on the conversion issue, the Supreme Court defended the right to equal status and a welcoming place in Israel of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities, as well as Jews by birth and Jews through choice.
Now it’s the turn of the Jewish majorities in Israel and the Diaspora and of their political and community leaderships to defend the Supreme Court’s ruling against those who will do all they can to keep the keys of entry to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel exclusively in their hands.
The Supreme Court carried out its role impeccably.
Now it’s the turn of the Jew in the pew.
Attorney Rabbi Gilad Kariv is president and CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.