Israel | Opinion

Op-Ed: Landmark conversions ruling is a victory for religious freedom in Israel

Uri Regev
Uri Regev

(JTA) — The Israeli Supreme Court’s recent landmark ruling on conversion is a truly historic decision – for Israeli and American Jewry.

While the case only concerns a few individuals, the general rules and unequivocal language have wide significance for both Israeli and American Jewry. The ruling represents another blow to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on religious affairs;  it strengthens a pluralistic approach to Judaism; and it upholds the principles of religious freedom and the rule of law.

In the narrowest sense, the ruling affirmed that Orthodox conversions taking place in Israel outside the official framework of the Chief Rabbinate are considered legitimate for the purposes of allowing an individual to become an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return. But everyone understands that it paves the road for further recognition of modern Orthodox and Reform/Conservative conversions. It also reaffirms that converts to Judaism, whether converted in the Diaspora or in Israel, are equally eligible to enjoy aliyah rights under the Law of Return.

That would explain the all-out, immediate assault on the decision by the Chief Rabbinate and Orthodox politicians, who are now demanding legislation that would undo it.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Miriam Naor rejected the government’s arguments that the Chief Rabbinate should retain exclusive authority over conversions in Israel. Instead, she quoted a key decision by former Chief Justice Aharon Barak. Israel, Barak wrote, is not the state of the “Jewish community” headed by the Chief Rabbinate, but rather the state of the Jewish people as a whole, with its diverse religious expressions, streams and movements. Then as now, the court rejected the state’s misguided claim that even for civil purposes, only those Israeli conversions sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate merit recognition.

Deputy Minister of Health Yaacov Litzman and Knesset member Moshe Gafni, leaders of the Ashkenazi haredi Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, responded immediately to the decision.

“We will not allow for the Justices of the Supreme Court to decide who will be accepted as a Jew in Israel, against the Jewish tradition throughout the ages,” they said.

Minister David Azoulay of the haredi Orthodox Sephardic party Shas said: “The Supreme Court is trying to uproot the Jewish foundations of the State of Israel.”

Their threats to nullify the court ruling through legislation represent an assault on the Supreme Court and liberal Judaism. They also signal that the tide might be turning against haredi control of Jewish lifecycle rituals, from conversion to marriage to burial. Haredi parties were already seeing their control slipping after rulings that created an egalitarian space at the Western Wall and another allowing non-Orthodox converts to immerse in public mikvahs, or ritual baths, as part of their conversion process.

But those in Israel and the Diaspora who support pluralism shouldn’t celebrate just yet. As significant as the ruling is, it is limited to the civil aspects of “Who is a Jew” — eligibility under the Law of Return and registration as a Jew in the civil population registry. It does not infringe upon the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and divorce.

Until freedom of marriage is legislated – allowing Jews in Israel to marry without the literal blessing of the Chief Rabbinate — these converts and many others, including all non-Orthodox converts from the United States and elsewhere, will continue to be treated as second-class Jews and second-class citizens, denied the basic civil right of marriage. They will be joining some 660,000 Israeli citizens — including immigrants from the former Soviet Union and gays and lesbians — who cannot marry in the Jewish state because neither civil nor non-Orthodox weddings are allowed.

Add to that the number of children growing up in the Jewish community in the United States whose mothers are not Jewish or whose parent underwent a non-Orthodox conversion: None would be eligible to legally marry in Israel, so long as the Chief Rabbinate controls the personal status of Jews.

This situation is a far cry from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly last November, when he pledged his commitment to ensure that “every Jew, whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, would feel at home in Israel.

In recent months, we have seen steps toward change taken by a number of key U.S. Jewish federations, the American Jewish Committee and a group of activists and other organizations, including modern Orthodox ones. But much more will have to be done to effectively bring about a fully pluralistic society.

According to Hiddush’s public opinion polling, the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews opposes the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate, view it as alienating Jews from Judaism, criticize the government’s policies in matters of religion and state, and want to see the promise of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, for freedom of religion and equality, fully realized.

So what may seem to be a ruling on individual cases of conversion in Israel is about Jewish pluralism, the rule of law and core principles of democracy. The time is now, in Israel and the Diaspora, to build on the decision. In addition to safeguarding the court from attempted castration by its haredi opponents, we need to call on Israel to move forward and ensure that converts to Judaism not only enjoy civil recognition, but also the right to legally marry and enjoy the full dignity of their Jewish identity.

Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, a transdenominational, nonpartisan, Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality.