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Ultra-Orthodox furious over Israeli top court’s ruling on conversions

Ultra-Orthodox parties announced that they will not join any coalition unless it cancels recognition of progressive Judaism conversions.
Ultra-orthodox Jewish men, some wearing the traditional Jewish prayer shawls known as Tallit, pray in divided sections at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's old city on February 23, 2021. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

The Supreme Court ruled March 2 that the state must recognize conversions conducted by the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel (progressive Judaism) for purposes of the Law of Return, which entitles Jews arriving to Israel to receive citizenship. In other words, in the eyes of Israeli law, non-Orthodox converts to Judaism are Jewish and should be entitled to become citizens.  

But despite all the hoopla, this ruling is not as dramatic as it sounds. After all, these conversions are already recognized, when they are conducted overseas. Reform and Conservative converts from the United States, for example, where most Jews identify with one of these movements, have the right to immigrate to Israel as Jews and immediately claim citizenship.

In fact, the real issue with the current ruling is its timing. With just three weeks left until the March 23 election, it plays into the hands of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox parties, but also into the hands of the liberal parties in the Knesset. The current conflict is getting so much attention that it is bound to drive voters on both sides to the polls.

From 2005 to 2008, the Supreme Court postponed issuing a ruling in 11 separate cases filed by immigrants from various places around the world, who underwent Reform or Conservative conversion in Israel. Most of these converts were already married to Jewish citizens of Israel, and were demanding that they be recognized as Jews so as to be eligible for the Law of Return.

The ultra-Orthodox parties refused to recognize them as Jews. The reason the court delayed its decision was so that the state could come up with a solution to the problem, which was acceptable to all the parties involved. Then, in December, the court finally rejected one last attempt by the state to get it to delay issuing its verdict, and announced that they plan to rule in all of the cases before it.

The sole dissenter was Justice Noam Sohlberg. He recommended that the court postpone its decision for one year from the formation of the new government, arguing that the situation was problematic, and that a ruling by the court would not help these converts with recognition as Jews by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate for other purposes, such as marriage.

The ultra-Orthodox parties and their allies from the more conservative wing of the religious Zionist movement, such as Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union party, may have been outraged by the court’s decision, but the truth is that they have only themselves to blame. They rejected every attempt at compromise in the decade and a half since the first case reached the Supreme Court.

One of the more recent cases was filed three years ago by the Nissim Commission, a committee charged with investigating the issue. At the head of the commission was former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim, an observant Jew whose father served as chief rabbi of Israel from 1955 to 1972.

After consulting with the parties involved in the dispute, Nissim recommended the creation of an official Conversion Authority under the auspices of the prime minister’s office, which would preside over five conversion courts distributed across the country. While the proposed authority would not be subject to the Chief Rabbinate, the judges performing the conversions would all be Orthodox, and conversions would be conducted according to Orthodox Jewish law. On the other hand, his proposed Conversion Authority would not have an absolute Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox majority, and it would give voice also to the Reform and Conservative movements.

The problem was that the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Yahadut HaTorah and Shas, were vital to the coalition. They prevented the implementation of these recommendations, which were intended to meet the needs of the entire Jewish population, and instead granted primacy over all matters pertaining to conversion to the Chief Rabbinate, a body that they already dominated.

On March 2, Nissim himself said that the Supreme Court’s ruling was necessary, noting, “As long as there is no law covering this issue, all of these problems are brought before the Supreme Court, with the expectation that it will resolve them. To date, no government has heeded any request to do something about the problem.”

He continued, “It is unfair to the Supreme Court to say that it is acting on the basis of some particular worldview. The extremism exhibited by the Chief Rabbinate prevents the problem from being resolved and even more so, encourages assimilation. My proposal had the backing of many important rabbis, but not the Chief Rabbinate. They rejected my proposal, perhaps out of pride. This has had an impact on the ultra-Orthodox parties and apparently on Smotrich too, which is why the proposal was not brought before the government for approval. There can be no doubt that if my proposal had been passed, the Supreme Court would have rejected all the cases before it. What this means is the chief rabbis’ opposition to the proposal is what led to the Reform movement being authorized to conduct conversions in Israel.”

None of this prevented the ultra-Orthodox parties from using the Supreme Court’s ruling in their election campaigns. One of the most controversial cases of this is a video clip released by Yahadut HaTorah, which compares Reform and Conservative converts to dogs.

The video features pictures of dogs wearing prayer shawls and yarmulkes [traditional scull covert], while the voiceover says: “The Supreme Court says they’re Jewish,” and “Only Yahadut HaTorah will preserve your Judaism, your children’s Judaism and your grandchildren’s Judaism.” The content of the video is apparently a reference to a negative yet very marginal phenomenon among Reform and Conservative Jews in the United States, in which owners have their pets celebrate “bark mitzvahs.” It should be noted this is done usually as a spoof, around the Purim festival.

The chairman of the Yesh Atid party, opposition Leader Yair Lapid, is known for his acerbic opposition to the ultra-Orthodox parties. He was particularly critical of this election ad, writing that his father, former Justice Minister Tommy Lapid, a campaigner against religious coercion, once told him that, “There was a big sign hanging over the parliament building in Budapest that read, “No entry to Jews and Dogs.” Lapid continued, “Anti-Semites across the generations have always compared Jews to dogs.”

Both Lapid and Avigdor Liberman, head of Yisrael Beitenu, which partners with Lapid in opposing the ultra-Orthodox, have been rising in the polls recently. Issues of religion and state only help them in their campaigns.

In response the ultra-Orthodox parties were quick to make two demands of any future coalition that might include them. The first is the passing of legislation empowering the Knesset to overturn decisions by the Supreme Court. The leaders of Yahadut HaTorah — Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman — issued a joint statement saying, “Yahadut HaTorah will demand legislation allowing the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court decisions. This comes as a response to judicial activism, which is harmful to so many Jews in Israel and around the world, and which threatens to tear us apart from the inside. We will not enter any coalition without that.”

The second demand was raised by Chairman of the Shas party Aryeh Deri, who said, “No government will be formed without legislation that only official, state-sanctioned conversion is recognized in Israel.”

One important lesson from this entire incident is that the Supreme Court’s new ruling is not, in fact, an example of judicial activism, as critics contend. On the contrary, it is an extreme example of how the court avoids getting itself involved in legislation.

A second lesson is that the inability of politicians to make difficult decisions is what actually forces the court to make decisions for them.

The third lesson is that the complete and utter refusal of the ultra-Orthodox parties to reach compromises is what repeatedly leads to even worse outcomes for them.

What the ultra-Orthodox concluded from their failure to defeat a powerful court is that instead of resolving problems through dialogue and by recognizing the rights of others, they need legislation that would allow them to overrule the Supreme Court with a simple majority in the Knesset.

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