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 to register Israelis undergoing non-Orthodox conversions here as Jews on their identity cards.

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

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

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

In the long term the decision may open the door to some 250,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds, to undergo Reform or Conservative conversions and 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 judges said the 25 Reform and Conservative converts who had submitted appeals should be registered in Israel's population registry and on their identity cards as Jews.

But the judges also said they had not made a judgment regarding "the essence or validity of the Reform and Conservative conversions. The information in the population registry is for statistical purposes only."

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

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

In some of the cases, the court process had lasted for some five to seven years, and some parents had been subjected to pressures from rabbis and politicians to withdraw their cases in exchange for a quickie conversion of the child in question.

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

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

Despite the jubilation that the ruling prompted in liberal Jewish circles, Orthodox religious leaders and politicians said they would seek ways to circumvent the decision.

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

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

"I'll write it as so-called 'Reform' or 'Conservative' so that everyone will know ... that he isn't Jewish in our opinion, and when he goes 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 Jewish people ... 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 the former Soviet Union, lauded the decision as a "great step" toward the liberalization of Israeli society.

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

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

While the ruling on the conversion issue is sure to send shock waves through Israel's Orthodox communities, the court simultaneously issued another judgment Wednesday that seemed intended to at least partly pacify its critics.

In the second ruling, the court turned down an appeal by a number of secular Israeli groups who had sought to overturn a longtime government practice of granting indefinite draft deferments to ultra-Orthodox Israeli men who study full time in a yeshiva.

The court said the Knesset should be given the opportunity to complete legislation on the matter that would provide for a limited draft or national service term for the ultra-Orthodox. The legislation has been bogged down for several years by political maneuvers.

The court's decision to defer any sweeping decision on the draft issue was seen by observers here as a kind of gesture to the ultra-Orthodox community designed to deflect anger and outrage over the judgment on the "Who is a Jew" issue.

"The claim that the two rulings are coincidentally being made on the same day is hardly credible," said a commentator in the liberal Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz. "The 'coincidence' is planned to ensure that one ruling softens the blow of the other."

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