A step toward religious freedom in Israel

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Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, left. (Photo by Mark Neyman / GPO)

Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that non-Orthodox conversions must be recognized for purposes of citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return. The decision was a welcome step toward making the Jewish state a land of religious freedom for Jews.

Unfortunately, the realities of Israeli politics could lead to the ruling being overturned by the Knesset. The court’s decision — which came as a surprise to most — related to cases that had been on hold for 15 years, as the court waited for the government to address the issue through legislation. Finally recognizing the futility of waiting, the court ruled. But even though the ruling is significant for Law of Return purposes, it did nothing to loosen the haredi Rabbinate’s stranglehold on personal status issues in the Jewish state.

Israel’s Law of Return, which confers a fast track to citizenship, defines a Jew as “one who was born to a Jewish mother or converted, while not being a member of another religion.” The court held that conversion in Israel under Reform or Conservative auspices met that test. As noted by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman in Bloomberg Opinion, “The question before the court was not whether Conservative or Reform conversions were religiously valid, but whether they counted socioculturally as ‘Jewish.’” The court concluded that for those purposes, non-Orthodox conversions counted.

Nonetheless, according to Feldman, the ruling was a signal “that the country’s legal elites are tired of deferring to the de facto Orthodox monopoly over defining Judaism in Israel,” and a forceful nod by the justices “in support of intra-Jewish egalitarianism.”

The ruling was largely celebrated in the Diaspora, where the issue of religious pluralism is a big deal. In Israel, however, the issue has less currency. So it was primarily the religious and political leaders in the country’s haredi community that reacted most strongly — and their criticism was stinging.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau said those who undergo Reform or Conservative conversions “are not Jews.” And according to Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef: “What the Reform and Conservatives call ‘conversion’ is nothing but a forgery of Judaism.” Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, of the haredi Shas party, pledged to overturn the decision through legislation, since it constitutes “a mortal blow to the Jewish character of the state” and the “complete demolition of the status quo [on religious affairs in Israel] that has been upheld for over 70 years.”

The “status quo” to which Deri referred dates back to a time when Israel’s character, population and politics were much different than they are today. Much has changed since 1948. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism account for the vast majority of the world’s Jewish population, and their influence is growing in the majority-secular Jewish state. That is an issue Israel will have to address as it works to sustain its foundational commitment to being both Jewish and democratic.

In the meantime, a move toward religious freedom and religious tolerance is a good thing. Last week’s Supreme Court ruling is a step in the right direction. It is something to be celebrated.

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