Court ruling for non-Orthodox conversions sets up battle at the heart of Judaism

With bombshell decision, justices bring to an end decades of ambivalence regarding the status of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. But the final word has not yet been said

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prayer services at the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, on July 17, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Prayer services at the pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall, on July 17, 2014. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

One Sunday morning in June 2017, the Israeli government, without prior warning, voted to indefinitely freeze an agreement that had been painstakingly negotiated over years with the leaders of world Jewry on a permanent pavilion for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The prayer area had already been established, and it still functions, to the dismay of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox-dominated rabbinate and religious leadership. But what was intolerable to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners was that the so-called Western Wall compromise agreement explicitly provided for a formal role in the joint oversight of the pluralistic area by representatives of non-Orthodox Judaism. Giving Conservative and Reform leaders a foothold at the physical heart of Judaism was unacceptable, and thus Netanyahu was pressured into suspending the carefully formulated deal.

On Monday, High Court justices struck a far deeper blow against the Orthodox monopoly over Judaism — intervening on the highly sensitive issue of who gets to be designated Jewish in Israel. After 15 years of deliberation and delay on petitions filed by a dozen non-Orthodox converts, they ruled that conversions to Judaism carried out in Israel by the Reform and Conservative movements must henceforth be considered valid for the purposes of citizenship. Non-Orthodox Jewish authorities, in other words, now get to confer the status of “Jew” in the Jewish state.

Illustrative: Justices arrive for a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on February 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Quite why the eminent justices decided to issue their decision now — just three weeks before a general election — is unknowable. In their ruling, they noted that they had postponed the decision time and again, urging the government repeatedly to determine the issue so that they would not have to. Finally, it appears, their patience ran out. “People’s rights are at stake,” noted Justice Dafna Barak-Erez, and it was simply unconscionable to wait any longer, especially given that no legislation to deal with the issue was anywhere on the horizon.

Reform and Conservative conversions carried out abroad are already valid for would-be immigrants seeking to come here under the Law of Return. And the justices noted that their ruling is relevant solely as regards citizenship, and that they are not seeking to interfere in matters relating, say, to marriage and divorce. Nonetheless, the court has ventured into an area where Israel’s Orthodox authorities regard themselves as supreme. The court may clarify that it is only determining “Who is a Jew” for citizenship purposes; the Orthodox authorities insist that only they can determine “Who is a Jew” for any purpose.

The immediate responses to the ruling have run along troublingly predictable lines — delight on the non-Orthodox left, horror on the Orthodox right.

Both of Israel’s chief rabbis rushed to condemn the court, with Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef declaring: “What the Reform and Conservative [movements] term ‘conversion’ is nothing but a falsification of Judaism.” The court decision, warned Yosef, “will mean including thousands of gentiles among the people of Israel.” The Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, for his part, stated flatly that Reform and Conservative converts are “not Jews” and that no court ruling could “change this fact.”

Avigdor Liberman, secular leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, by complete contrast, hailed the “historic” ruling and vowed to “continue the battle against religious coercion.”

From left to right: Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of Israel’s Reform movement, Yizhar Hess, the head of Israel’s Conservative movement, Women of the Wall head Anat Hoffman, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, at the Western Wall’s pluralistic prayer platform (courtesy)

At a stroke, the court’s ruling at least partially remakes the March 23 elections. They remain largely a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership and suitability, but with the added dimension now of the struggle between the broadly Orthodox right, with whom the secular Netanyahu has long been allied, and the secular left.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Shas party chairman Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu is already interested in reining in the powers of the judiciary — not least because he is currently at its mercy, on trial for three charges of corruption. His ultra-Orthodox allies will now be urging him to do with still greater urgency, while some of his Orthodox political rivals — notably including Naftali Bennett’s Yamina — will be seeking to win votes away from him for his failure to curb the justices’ ostensible excesses long ago. Shas chair Aryeh Deri and the leaders of United Torah Judaism both vowed Monday evening to condition their participation in any future coalition on a commitment to legislation overriding the judges’ ruling.

Across the aisle, the likes of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Liberman will depict the election battle as a struggle for the future of an enlightened, tolerant, liberal Israel, threatened by a prime minister in thrall to the ultra-Orthodox.

At stake, too, however, is Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry, much of which identifies with the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism that the High Court empowered on Monday. The court has ruled, at a particularly sensitive movement, but its decision is not the last word. Opponents — of the court in general, and especially of this ruling — are promising to speedily advance legislation to overturn the justices’ decision.

One way or the other, the constructive ambivalence regarding the status of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, maintained for decades, is now going to have to be clarified.

In the case of the Western Wall compromise, the ultra-Orthodox establishment brushed aside a minor challenge to its monopoly — with major negative repercussions for the fragile ties between the Jewish state and the Jewish people worldwide, many of whose leaders felt betrayed on that Sunday in 2017.

This time, the challenge is more potent. And the battle will be fiercer and, one fears, still more damaging to the fabric of world Jewry.

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