One Step Forward?

I was very disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to learn that the Israeli government has failed to comply with the March 31, 2005 landmark ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court mandating that a Jewish religious conversion (including Reform and Conservative conversions) begun in Israel with a rigorous course of study and concluded with a ceremony abroad was legally valid and should be recognized by the State of Israel for both Jewishness and citizenship.  This ruling was the culmination of many years of litigation led by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).  I have written about its implications elsewhere in this blog (see April ’05 post: An Important Legal Victory for Religious Pluralism in Israel).

The Court also annulled the Interior Ministry’s demand for such converts to spend a certain amount of time abroad before returning to Israel.  This Supreme Court decision was hailed by the Israeli press as one of the most important rulings that the Court made this year.

According to IRAC’s mid-year progress report:

“In light of the March ruling, in which the Chief Justice hinted that there does not seem to be any justification for the State to refuse to recognize non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel, we turned to the Interior Minister and to the Attorney General and demanded recognition under the Law of Return for Reform and Conservative conversions held in Israel.  Also, we submitted specific requests to the Interior Ministry in this area.  To date, we have not yet received a substantive reply and so we are preparing an additional Supreme Court petition in this matter.

Despite the fact that 4 months have elapsed since the Court’s ruling, the State has not set criteria for the implementation of the March ruling, and so in effect the State does not yet recognize non-Orthodox converts from abroad.  If there is no recognition soon for these converts, we will be forced to return to the Supreme Court on this matter.”

Perhaps the State of Israel is being unresponsive because there are several hundred thousand recent Jewish immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union and from South America who have not been accorded full Israeli citizenship on religious grounds, and therefore they cannot vote.  Since these immigrants are unlikely to support Orthodox Jewish religious views, if they become participants in the political process, they may shift the fragile balance of power in the Knesset away from the Orthodox monopoly on matters of religious observance in Israel and in the direction of embracing tolerance and religious pluralism.

Consider this legal foot-dragging in the context of the drama that is playing out today in Gaza, where 9,000 Jewish settlers have kept the future on hold for 1,000,000 Palestinians, and the last of these holdouts are being literally dragged out of Gaza, kicking and screaming, by Jewish soldiers. Will the IRAC have to continue to go back to the Israeli Supreme Court again and again to force compliance with the conversion ruling?

In my view, the continuing shifts in demographics and in popular sentiment that are driving change in Israel will reach a tipping point, and the rate of change will accelerate.  It is up to the country’s leaders to decide whether they will prepare Israel’s bureaucratic institutions to be ready to withstand this change, or allow them to be overwhelmed by it.    

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