An Exciting Israeli Supreme Court Decision? Not Really.

If you are a Jew by choice or a person who is married to a Jew who would like to become Jewish, it’s a pretty crazy time to live in Israel. On the one hand, Jews by choice, no matter who performed their conversions, are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. The Law of Return also includes relatives of Jews or people with Jewish  ancestry.

If you want to get married in Israel, to use a Jewish cemetery to bury your relatives there, or to enroll your children in religious school, you have to be Jewish according to the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate, and this has nothing to do with the Law of Return. This has gotten a little more complicated in the last year or so. It was just a little over a year ago when the Israeli High Rabbinic Court ruled that Israel’s own (Orthodox) conversions were invalid. Specifically, they ruled that the head of the state conversion ministry did not preside over kosher conversions. Later, they also invalidated the Jewishness of the son of a famous Jewish theologian on the grounds that his Orthodox conversion at birth was invalidated by sloppiness in observance of Jewish law later in his life. Most believed this decision, like the previous one, was motivated by political animus toward other rabbis. Still, it threw into doubt the Jewish status of any person converted for adoption who might appear before the rabbinical court.

All of these cases throw into doubt the common assumption in the Jewish community that an Orthodox conversion is what’s required for acceptance into the Jewish community.

These strange cases might have had some impact on a recent Israeli Supreme Court decision that non-Orthodox religious movements should have equal government funding for conversion preparation programs to the funding Orthodox programs receive. The secular court ruled that there was no reason to prefer Orthodox conversion education programs.

Some have voiced concern that secular courts might be making religious decisions. To me as an American observer, this is laughable. There isn’t separation of church and state (or more accurately, rabbinical court and state) in Israel. There is no civil marriage and there is no civil divorce.

This is a decision that looks nice but doesn’t actually change anything. There is no change to who is eligible for the Law of Return. Reform, Conservative and other liberal Jewish converts are still eligible, and so are non-Jewish spouses from interfaith marriages and the children of those marriages, no matter which parent was Jewish. There is no change, either, in who controls marriage and divorce in Israel–religious courts. There is no change in the control of the far right Orthodox camp over the rabbinical courts.

It’s not clear what this decision accomplishes for religious freedom in Israel.

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2 thoughts on “An Exciting Israeli Supreme Court Decision? Not Really.

  1. The Orthodox strong hold over these matters in Israel really needs to be repelled. It’s absolutely ridiculous that a Jew by Choice who’s made the choice to live in Israel can’t be buried or married there unless they’re deemed “kosher” by the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate. And to “overturn” the Jewishness of someone who has been Jewish their whole life– because they’re not Orthodox enough, it equally disgusting.

    By the way, this doesn’t just affect those who’ve converted. My mother’s side of the family is Reform– I lived in Israel for three years and although I was Jewish enough to immigrate, was told that if I ever wanted to get married there, I may have a problem unless I could dig up my grandparents lost ketubah from 1941. Apparently, even though I was BORN a Jew, I may still not have been Jewish enough because my aaliyah letter was written by a Reform rabbi!

    These rabbis need to take another look at their books. Being a Jew has nothing to do with whether you use the phone or drive on Shabbat. Show me where it says that someone who is born Jewish (or even a convert) can have their Judiasm virtually ignored (or stripped) for not keeping halachic law.

  2. Thank you so much for writing about this issue, Ruth. It is a very difficult issue for those of us in America who already struggle with the feeling that we are not “Jewish” enough. As you know, I am a convert and I struggle with the idea that in Israel I would not be considered Jewish. So, I may not face the legal repercussions of the Israeli rulings, but I hear the message loud and clear: No one is Jewish unless the Orthodox Israeli rabbinate says so. In other words, my worst fears are true — I am not Jewish. Ouch.

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