An Important Legal Victory for Religious Pluralism in Israel

It has been my experience that too few American Jews are aware of the deep ideological divisions that exist between mainstream Judaism in the United States and the Orthodox establishment that controls religious law in Israel. When you live in a nation whose history is steeped in religious pluralism and whose Constitution clearly separates Church and State, it is easy to assume that religious practice in other countries may be similar to your own experience.

Israel is certainly not a secular state, and a major ideological struggle does exist in contemporary Judaism– between Orthodox intolerance for diversity among Jews and Progressive advocacy of religious pluralism.  One element of this struggle has been simmering in the courts for years and was just resolved in favor of religious pluralism by the Israeli supreme court.

Yesterday, I received the following email from the World Union for Progressive Judaism, now headed by Rabbi Uri Regev, the former director of the Israel Religious Action Center. I had the privilege of meeting with Rabbi Regev several months ago in San Francisco:

Reform Movement Wins Landmark Victory in Israeli Supreme Court Ruling on Conversions

In a decision capping eight years of claims, counter-claims, and political and bureaucratic stonewalling, Israel’s High Court of Justice today ruled that 14 temporary residents who had studied toward conversions in Israel but converted in Reform and Conservative ceremonies abroad be recognized as Jews under the country’s Law of Return.

Backed by seven of the 11 Supreme Court justices hearing the case, the ruling means that such converts are to be granted full Israeli citizenship and full eligibility for immigrant benefits. An interim court decision last year said the Law of Return applies to anyone who converts after moving to Israel, no matter where the conversion takes place, and came in reply to an Interior Ministry policy granting automatic citizenship only to those who first enter the country as Jews.

The litigants affected by today’s ruling were represented by the Executive Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Uri Regev, an attorney and former director of the Israel Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), and by IRAC attorneys Nicole Maor and Sharon Tal. Rabbi Regev called the High Court’s decision "a most important milestone" for the world’s Jews. "The court ruled that the State of Israel must recognize any Jew accepted into its midst by any Jewish stream. As the litigants completed the conversion process abroad, the court was not being asked to address the validity of non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel for purposes of application under the Law of Return. However, continued refusal by the [Israeli] government to change its policy regarding Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel would contravene what was explicitly said in this and previous rulings." Maor called on both the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption to immediately issue the litigants documents that attest to their status as citizens and new immigrants.

This legal victory for Progressive Judaism has raised the stakes in the conflict between orthodox and reform Jews in Israel.

Note the following excerpt from the New York Times article on the story published March 31:

"The Reform and Conservative movements, which are the largest streams of Judaism in the United States, but with little standing in Israel, hailed the decision as a victory.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox religious establishment, which is dominant here, said the ruling could cause a big religious rift. "There is now more than one way to become Jewish in Israel, and that is wonderful," said Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, which filed the case on behalf of 14 foreigners living in Israel and seeking to convert. …

Yona Metzger, Israel’s chief rabbi for Ashkenazi Jews, said the ruling was a dangerous precedent. "If the court were to recognize Reform conversions, it would be very serious. It would split the nation in two," Rabbi Metzger told Israel radio."

An excerpt from an article pubished by the JTA News on March 31 provides an even sharper sense of the division in Israel:

“… the ruling did not endorse Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel, a move that effectively would end Orthodoxy’s de facto hegemony in the Jewish state and could stir up a government crisis.

In response to a demand presented by the fervently Orthodox Shas party and signed by 25 legislators, the Knesset will meet in special session next week to debate the court decision.

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai called the ruling an “explosives belt that has brought about a suicide attack against the Jewish people,” according to Ha’aretz.

The Orthodox Rabbinate, which controls the observance of life-cycle events in Israel — including births, weddings and funerals — also cried foul. “There aren’t two movements or three movements in Judaism. There is only one Judaism,” Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar told Israel Radio. “Whoever doesn’t go through a halachic conversion is not a Jew.”

For more information on these developments, please refer to the following article in the Los Angeles Times

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