High Court ends Orthodox monopoly on conversion of non-Jewish kids up for adoption

After 20-year legal battle, state agrees to examine each such adoption on a case-by-case basis instead of continuing blanket mandate

Illustrative: Newborn babies at the English Mission Hospital, in Nazareth, October 31, 2012. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative: Newborn babies at the English Mission Hospital, in Nazareth, October 31, 2012. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

After a 20-year legal battle, the High Court of Justice ruled on Sunday that there must be an end to the practice mandating that non-Jewish children being adopted in Israel must convert to Judaism in an Orthodox manner and only be raised by Orthodox Jewish parents.

An expanded nine-justice panel of the court issued its ruling after the state agreed to handle each case individually instead of continuing the blanket mandate.

The case was first filed in 2003 by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, which argued that children should not be forced to undergo an Orthodox conversion and be placed only with an Orthodox family.

At the time, the state — represented by the adoption branch of the Welfare Ministry — said that it was operating with the best interests of the child in mind, as children who are not considered Jewish by the state “may encounter difficulty in marrying as a Jew in the State of Israel upon reaching adulthood,” the state repeatedly told the court.

There is no civil marriage in Israel, and citizens can only marry through their respective religious affiliations. For Jews, marriage is controlled by the Chief Rabbinate, which only recognizes as Jewish those who are born to a Jewish mother or those who converted in an Orthodox manner.

The court, however, said it did not agree with the state’s assessment, writing that “the best interests of the child should be examined on a case by case basis,” taking into consideration both the child up for adoption and the potential adoptive parents.

Illustrative: The High Court of Justice convenes in Jerusalem to discuss the potential evacuation of the West Bank outpost of Homesh, January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For two decades, the High Court delayed issuing a ruling as it waited for other linked cases to be decided — including a landmark 2021 ruling that recognized, for the purposes of citizenship, Reform and Conservative conversions carried out in Israel.

The court also noted that the number of adoption cases has dropped significantly in recent years — to just a few dozen in 2022, and to only a handful of non-Jewish cases each year.

Last week the state informed the court that it would agree to remove the blanket mandate and instead evaluate each such case individually. Therefore the court said it would close the case and give the state’s new position the force of a High Court ruling.

Nicole Maor, the lawyer who led the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism’s fight since 2003, welcomed the decision to end the “discriminatory and inappropriate policy.”

Maor added that it was “very unfortunate that it took a 20-year legal battle in order to change such a discriminatory policy.”

In February, the Knesset voted 45-37 against legislation that would have enabled same-sex couples to adopt children in Israel. Activists have petitioned the High Court of Justice on the issue, and the case is ongoing.

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