c. 2002 Religion News Service

JERUSALEM -- In a landmark ruling that has been awaited for years,Israel's Supreme Court on Wednesday (Feb. 20) ordered the government toregister Israelis undergoing non-Orthodox conversions here as Jews ontheir identity cards.

The decision quickly touched off a renewed debate over thelong-simmering issue of "Who is a Jew," which had been put on the backburner over the past 18 months as Israeli-Palestinian violence andconfrontations captured the nation's attention and its headlines.

"This is a revolution for us," declared Rabbi David Ariel-Yoel, thedirector general of Israel's Progressive (Reform) Movement immediatelyafter the high court decision. "There are many reasons to be happytoday, and the best reason is that the suffering of many converts hasended today, and they have been registered as Jews."

Until the ruling, Israeli law recognized as legitimate onlyconversions performed by Orthodox rabbis.

In the long term the decision may open the door to some 250,000immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are of mixed Jewish andnon-Jewish backgrounds, to undergo Reform or Conservative conversionsand be registered as Jews on their identity cards.

Despite its potential for generating change, the court decision was,nonetheless, a narrow legal ruling. The panel of 11 Supreme Court judgessaid the 25 Reform and Conservative converts who had submitted appealsshould be registered in Israel's population registry and on theiridentity cards as Jews.

But the judges also said they had not made a judgment regarding "theessence or validity of the Reform and Conservative conversions. Theinformation in the population registry is for statistical purposesonly."

And the judges added that the ruling dealt only with cases ofIsraelis or their offspring and not with the cases of recent immigrantsto Israel who had undergone non-Orthodox conversions abroad.

Most of the appeals in the decision, in fact, had been brought byIsraeli-born parents who adopted non-Jewish children abroad, and hadbeen ordered to adopt a strictly Orthodox lifestyle in order for theirchildren to be converted as Jews.

In some of the cases, the court process had lasted for some five toseven years, and some parents had been subjected to pressures fromrabbis and politicians to withdraw their cases in exchange for a quickieconversion of the child in question.

"We're very happy that the courts have obliged the minister ofinterior to recognize the conversion that we did for our daughter, whichwas a Reform conversion," said Ora Magen of Jerusalem, one of theappellants in the case. Magen is the mother of a 6-year-old girl who wasconverted when she was 8 months old and had been denied recognition as aJew ever since.

"We think that the court has taken a big step forward today topreserve Israel as a democratic state, a state of law that preserveshuman dignity, freedom of religion and freedom of choice," she said.

Despite the jubilation that the ruling prompted in liberal Jewishcircles, Orthodox religious leaders and politicians said they would seekways to circumvent the decision.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, saidhe would introduce new legislation in the Knesset that would recognizeonly Orthodox conversions, although observers said such measures wouldhave little chance of winning approval in the current parliament.

Yishai said he would also examine the possibility of writing thewords "Reform" and "Conservative" rather than simply "Jewish" on theidentity cards of the converts in question.

"I'll write it as so-called 'Reform' or 'Conservative' so thateveryone will know ... that he isn't Jewish in our opinion, and when hegoes to the rabbis to be married in the future, he can't be registered,"said Yishai, speaking on Israel Radio.

Yishai said the ruling represented a "catastrophe for the Jewishpeople ... that will cause unnecessary divisions among people,strengthen a marginal stream of society and encourage assimilation."

On the other side of the spectrum, Knesset Member Roman Bronfman,who represents a political party comprised mainly of immigrants from theformer Soviet Union, lauded the decision as a "great step" toward theliberalization of Israeli society.

"The Supreme Court ruled on the equality of rights between Orthodox,Reform and Conservative," Bronfman said. "And they opened the door wideto a large community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union whoaren't Jews according to Orthodox religious law, and in the past couldonly be channeled toward an Orthodox conversion.


Until now, few such immigrants have sought conversion because theprocess is so strict and requires candidates to dramatically alter theirardently secular lifestyle, which is partly a legacy of the Soviet era.But thanks to the new court ruling, said Bronfman, "the doors have nowbeen open to them to join the Jewish people. I see this not as adivisive step but as one that will bring more unity."