Will Supreme Court’s bite out of rabbinate monopoly be upheld?
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Will Supreme Court’s bite out of rabbinate monopoly be upheld?

In landmark ruling aimed to embrace diversity of the Jewish people, conversions outside auspices of Israel’s religious authority are to be acceptable for immigration status. But will this decision too be ‘castrated’ by a coalition of religious MKs?

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Israel Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Naor (seated, center) during a court hearing, October 29, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israel Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Naor (seated, center) during a court hearing, October 29, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Although born in Kuwait to a Palestinian refugee family, today Mark Halawa lives with his Jewish wife and daughter in the heart of Jerusalem. His path to Israel is circuitous, and began as an adult in Canada, when discussions of his mother’s Jewish roots with a welcoming Chabad rabbi sparked a change in his identity.

Halawa became increasingly drawn to Judaism and eventually decided to cement his commitment and underwent a conversion that was stringently in keeping with halacha (Jewish law). After years of study, he became a Jew in the ultra-Orthodox Israeli city of Bnei Brak in 2013.

But only on Thursday did Halawa gain the right of Jewish citizenship in Israel.

In a landmark Supreme Court ruling this week, a full plenum of nine judges ruled that for purposes of Israeli civil status, the Law of Return recognizes the conversions of thousands of Jews across the Diaspora who, like Halawa, converted in independent conversion courts outside the auspices of the Israeli chief rabbinate.

“Sunday morning, I’m going to start the citizenship process,” said an enthusiastic Halawa on Friday while preparing for Shabbat. “I want aliya [Jewish immigration], I want to start doing things here.”

Mark Halawa converted to Judaism in an independent ultra-Orthodox court in 2013 and now lives as an observant Jew in Jerusalem. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Mark Halawa converted to Judaism in an independent ultra-Orthodox court in 2013 and now lives as an observant Jew in Jerusalem. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Alongside hundreds of others in Israel, Halawa — and one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court case — converted in the court of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz. Although their conversions are halachically “kosher,” until Thursday their status in Israel was fraught with bureaucratic complications and uncertainty.

‘Sunday morning, I’m going to start the citizenship process’

Halawa, a popular pro-Israel advocate who sings the country’s praises around the globe, said that his civil situation has become so precarious in Israel that he and his wife had begun discussing a move abroad.

“I would love to pay taxes here,” he said, adding that he was offered some work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but was told he needed to be a citizen to be paid for it. “It’s so difficult to do things here workwise… I want to contribute to this country.”

For many converts living Jewish lives in Israel and across the Diaspora who have bound their fates with the Jewish people, since their conversions are not recognized by the Israeli chief rabbinate, they are stuck in a sort of existential limbo vis-à-vis Israel.

With no clear legislation on the books, their petitions to the Supreme Court have been mounting over the past decade as they await adjudication of their civil status.

“There are a lot of people who are stuck, who cannot go forward or backward because of the uncertainty of their Jewish status. This revives their Judaism and strengthens Israel abroad at the same time,” said Halawa.

‘The People of Israel are one people’

Indeed, in her scathing ruling Thursday, Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Naor had an Emma Lazarus moment. While Orthodox politicians have garnered much media attention of late for repeated derogatory statements against non-Orthodox Jewry, Naor would have Israel welcome the Diaspora’s Jewish diversity to her teeming shore.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Naor speaks during a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President's residence in Jerusalem, on February 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Supreme Court Chief Justice Miriam Naor speaks during a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President’s residence in Jerusalem, on February 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Signifying the issue’s importance, a full plenum of judges heard from the representatives of four defendants from three cases, one in 2006 and two in 2011. They were heard in a combined petition against the Interior Ministry, the population registry, the Conversion Authority (through the Prime Minister’s Office) and immigration authority. Joining as respondents were Israel’s Reform and Masorti movements, and the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

The ruling included pages of refutations against the state’s refusal to recognize as Jewish the four individuals who converted to Judaism outside the auspices of the chief rabbinate. Naor and Justices Elyakim Rubinstein and Neal Hendel also repeatedly chastised today’s government and generations of politicians for their utter inability to draw up clear legislation on conversion.

‘The Law of Return reflects the purpose of maintaining the unity of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and Israel’

According to Naor, a broad reading of the 1950 Law of Return is essential for the State of Israel to maintain is Jewish and democratic natures. There is no room for unequal treatment within the diversity of the Jewish people, she wrote, and therefore, at least for secular civil purposes, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel cannot be the only recognized auspices for conversion.

“The people of Israel are indeed one people, but spread out in all the corners of the globe, and made up of many communities, with different shades and variations within those same communities. Therefore, the Law of Return reflects, in addition to the promotion of aliya, also the purpose of maintaining the unity of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and Israel,” writes Naor.

Soundly refuting the idea that individuals would use conversion as a means for immigration, quoting from the Book of Jeremiah (31:17), Naor writes that an exclusionary approach to the Law of Return is anathema with the idea of the Ingathering of the Exiles, and therefore counter to the essential nature of the Jewish homeland.

The exclusionary scope of the respondents does not allow for this inclusivity, but rather narrows in a substantiative way the right of aliya and doesn’t take into consideration the existing diversity of the Jewish communities, and is thus unacceptable, wrote Naor.

From ‘without religion’ to Jewish, overnight

A day after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that took conversion to Judaism outside of the sole auspices of the Israeli chief rabbinate, Rabbi Seth Farber has already received emails from converts living outside of Israel asking whether their conversions to Judaism are now consider “kosher” enough for purposes of immigration.

One South American, who like Halawa converted through the ultra-Orthodox Kurelitz court, asked if he can immigrate to Israel “tomorrow,” Farber said Friday morning. Before turning over the case to another lawyer, Farber’s organization, Itim, which aids immigrants in navigating the chief rabbinate’s bureaucratic quagmire, was one of the original petitioners in the 2006 case decided by the Supreme Court Thursday.

Head of Itim Rabbi Seth Farber and Supreme Court petitioner Martina Ragacova at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, June 30, 2015. (courtesy Itim)
Head of Itim Rabbi Seth Farber and Supreme Court petitioner Martina Ragacova at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, June 30, 2015. (courtesy Itim)

Although that petitioner was not granted civil recognition because she was illegally residing in Israel at the time of her conversion, the ruling on the legal issue has immediate resonance for the over 150 Israelis who have converted through Farber’s newly founded independent Orthodox conversion courts.

The fledgling Giyur Kahalacha initiative has backing from respected halachic leaders such as Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch from Ma’ale Adumim, former Shas politician Rabbi Haim Amsalem, Otniel’s Rabbi Re’em HaCohen, and head of the Tzohar rabbinical movement Rabbi David Stav. It attempts to solve the painful problematic status of some 400,000 immigrants to Israel who are either not born as Jews according to the halachic definition, or cannot prove their Jewish lineage to the rabbinate’s satisfaction.

In opposition to the rabbinate’s increasingly stringent demands upon potential converts, Giyur Kahalacha takes a more welcoming, lenient stance and views conversion as the beginning of the formation of a Jewish identity, not its end game.

Farber explained that Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling acknowledges for the first time that today, as opposed to the 20th century idea of Jewish movements, 21st century Jewry is a Judaism of diversity.

“It also says to the government that there’s a problem in this country that needs to be solved,” said Farber.

Efrat's Rabbi Shlomo Riskin officiates at a conversion examination for the Giyur Kahalacha conversion court, November 2015. (courtesy)
Efrat’s Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (second from left) officiates at a conversion examination for the Giyur Kahalacha conversion court, November 2015. (courtesy)

For the Giyur Kahalacha converts, who largely reside in Israel as non-Jews with one Jewish grandparent, this ruling enables them to be recognized by the population registry as Jewish. Today they are registered as “without religion,” said Farber.

For the Giyur Kahalacha converts, until now, their conversions were private acts of religious affirmation. “But now the Supreme Court is saying the State of Israel recognizes you as Jewish,” said Farber.

‘It’s life-changing because a lot of our people don’t care about the rabbinate. They want to know that the state recognizes them as Jewish’

“There’s huge symbolic value,” said Farber. “It’s life-changing because a lot of our people don’t care about the rabbinate. They want to know that the state recognizes them as Jewish; it is very significant.”

While personally significant, in terms of practical impact, Farber agreed that there’s a long road ahead until Jews who convert outside the rabbinate will enjoy religious parity.

“It’s a milestone, but our real goal is to solve the conversion problem and resolve who is a Jew. There is a lot of work ahead of us,” he said.

Farber, like Justices Naor, Hendel and Rubinstein, is clearly frustrated by the paucity of legislation and unwillingness to reach compromise on the part of the government. In his lengthy ruling, Rubinstein detailed for the protocols of history countless examples in which progress was stymied through politics.

“I always consider the Supreme Court to be the last resort,” said Farber.

An important milestone in the battle for religious pluralism

Lawyer Nicole Maor represented the Reform and Conservative movements as a respondent to the petition. Commuting back home late Thursday, she underscored the decision’s importance.

“The Supreme Court held today that there is more then one way to be recognized as Jewish in the State of Israel. It held that there cannot be discrimination between conversions performed abroad and those performed in Israel,” said Maor.

For years, the Liberal Jewry has been forced to jump through hoops in its struggle for the recognition of their conversions in Israel, to the point of flying converts abroad for “quickie conversions” since those performed in Israel were not considered valid for civil status.

Nicole Maor, a lawyer at the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, specializes in legal aid for immigrants (courtesy)
Nicole Maor, a lawyer at the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, specializes in legal aid for immigrants (courtesy)

“Although the decision related to haredi conversions performed in Israel, the grounds for the ruling hold equally for conversions performed in all recognized Jewish communities in Israel. It has negated every argument the state used to try and justify non-recognition of Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel,” said Maor. “It truly is an important milestone in the battle for religious pluralism in Israel.”

In a lengthy email response from California, lawyer and religious freedom activist Rabbi Uri Regev, the head of the Israeli NGO Hiddush, also emphasized the ruling’s importance to Jewish pluralism in that it paves the way for progressive Jewry to have its conversions fully recognized for Law of Return citizenship status.

“The principle importance of the ruling is that it again clarifies that the legislation on the question of ‘Who is a Jew?’ for purposes of registration and civil status, must be defined in a broad and pluralistic way, that is inclusive of the diversity of the Jewish movements that exist in the Jewish people,” said Regev.

On the surface, Thursday’s Supreme Court decision is a great victory for religious pluralism.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri (L) speaks with Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party on September 2, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Shas party leader Aryeh Deri (L) speaks with Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party on September 2, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, suggested a cynical Regev, since the decision is a clear step towards the breakdown of the rabbinate’s monopoly, surely the Knesset’s religious politicians will soon rise up and legislate to “castrate” the court’s decision, as has been done with other “progressive” rulings, such as the use of ritual baths for Liberal Jewish conversions in Israel.

Or perhaps, said Regev, to again get their way, the religious politicians will simply threaten to topple the government’s colossally fragile coalition, as seems to be the case with the much-heralded egalitarian Western Wall compromise.

“The ruling admittedly deals with the issue of private conversion,” said Regev. But it is emblematic of a much deeper struggle — the clash between Israel’s judicial and legislative branches over Israel’s essential character.

“All those who fear for Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and democratic state must fight with all their power to prevent legislation that will harm the Supreme Court and attempt to negate and castrate its decisions,” said Regev.

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