Israel’s Conversion Battle, Unpacked

The Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled the state must recognize Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel for the purposes of citizenship. Under Israel’s Law of Return — a foundational Israeli law ever since it was passed in 1950 — Jews are entitled to receive automatic citizenship if they move to Israel.

The question of who should qualify as a Jew under the Law of Return has been debated within Israel and the Jewish world for many years (the original law did not provide a definition of “Jewish” for the purposes of citizenship).

Up to this point, when it comes to conversions done in Israel, the Jewish state only recognized ones performed through Orthodox denominations for purposes of the Law of Return. However, Israel has recognized most Conservative and Reform conversions performed abroad since Supreme Court decisions mandated this in the 1980s.

Although the practical impact of the ruling is negligible (only about 30 or 40 people are estimated to convert to Judaism through the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel each year), many agree it is important symbolically in the ongoing debate over the rabbinate’s control of issues of state and religion in Israel. The decision has also renewed a debate over who is a Jew in Jewish communities around the world.

Israeli and Diaspora Jews are reacting to the Supreme Court decision and what it means for the Jewish state practically and symbolically. We reached out to Rabbis Sharon Brous, Amitai Fraiman and Joel Meyers to help us unpack this story.

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Reactions From the Orthodox World

The Orthodox Jewish world was divided on the ruling: some lamented the decision as catastrophic for Israel and the Jewish people, while others welcomed it as strengthening democracy and Jewish unity.

In Israel, Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called Reform and Conservative conversion “nothing but a forgery of Judaism,” while Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau insisted that those who undergo Reform or Conservative conversions “are not Jews” and “no High Court decision will change this fact.”

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads the haredi Shas party, said the ruling goes against the majority of Israelis who want to “preserve Judaism according to traditions that go back thousands of years.” According to the Israel Democracy Institute, about 60 percent of Israeli Jews support civil marriage and running public transportation on Shabbat, and a majority favor a change to the rabbinate’s monopoly over religious issues.

Outside of Israel, Agudath Israel of America, which represents Haredi communities, called the decision “misleading and dangerous,” arguing that recognizing non-Orthodox conversions will “only confuse the Jewish public and increase disunity.”

The group continued, “We in the United States have watched in anguish how non-halachic ‘conversions’ have created a plurality of ‘Jewish peoples’ here with…lamentable impacts on the ability of halacha-faithful Jews to marry many who were raised in non-Orthodox Jewish communities.”

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, an Orthodox umbrella movement, also criticized the decision, warning it “might bring millions of people from different countries to Israel as tourists, go through a pro-forma conversion and dilute the character of the only Jewish state in the world.”

However, other Orthodox rabbis welcomed the decision. In an interview, Rabbi Amitai Fraiman, director of the Z3 Project at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, Calif., said the Supreme Court decision “is way overdue,” adding that “it’s high time to let people figure out how to be Jewish in the Jewish state.”

Fraiman, who was born in Jerusalem, also said he was “appalled” by a recent United Torah Judaism campaign video suggesting non-Orthodox denominations would recognize dogs wearing religious items such as kippot, talitot and tefillin as Jewish. “Many Israelis know very little about non-Orthodox denominations,” Fraiman explained, adding that “anyone who is a discerning individual knows this is not Reform Judaism.”

A group of 50 liberal Orthodox rabbis from Israel and the U.S. — including Yitz Greenberg, Daniel Landes, Asher Lopatin, Nathan Lopez Cardozo, Dina Najman and Shmuly Yanklowitz — signed a letter expressing their support for the ruling, arguing it “strengthens the democratic character of the state by treating all Jewish denominations as equal in this particular matter.”

They added, “We condemn the words spoken vituperatively and degradingly about liberal Judaism and Reform and Conservative Jews. These words are a violation of the Torah’s commandment to love all Jews (‘love your neighbor as yourself’).”

In a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Orthodox rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel wrote, “We are all part of what can be called the Covenant of Family — that family includes our co-religionists from other denominations.”

Weiss and Angel concluded, “Perhaps the greatest threat to Israel is the lack of unity of our people. The Supreme Court decision has the potential to bring us closer, allowing Jews from all streams to feel part of the destiny of Am Yisrael…recognizing we are not only part of one nation, but one family.”

Reactions From the Non-Orthodox Jewish World

In Israel, Opposition leader Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, welcomed the decision, commenting that “Israel must have complete equality of rights for all streams of Judaism” and that “Israel is the only democracy in the world without freedom of religion for Jews.”

Israeli-American author Yossi Klein Halevi said on a Hartman Institute podcast that with this decision, Zionism comes closer to “fulfilling its promise” of reflecting “the totality of the Jewish people.” He added that the decisions also helps rectify “the insult we constantly convey to liberal Jews” who feel excluded by the Rabbinate’s policies.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, the senior and founding rabbi of IKAR, a non-denominational spiritual community in Los Angeles, spoke to this point. She said in an interview that although the decision is “a huge step forward,” some Israeli political ads created in response to the decision were “devastating.”

Brous said that the campaign ads could serve to “wake up the American Jewish community to the toxic nature of the discourse” between Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora, and “will hopefully stir honest conversations” about how to move forward.

Meanwhile, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs welcomed the decision as “affirmed the reality that the Jewish people are stronger because of the contributions of Reform and Conservative Movements and their commitment to bringing more Jews into the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, U.S. chair of the World Jewish Congress and the former executive vice president of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said in an interview that what is at stake is more than the issue of “religious pluralism” or “religious freedom.” “This is about the right to say, ‘I am Jewish because I observe Judaism this way,’” Meyers said.

Meyers — who has led lobbying efforts with Netanyahu and Knesset members in support of recognizing non-Orthodox conversions done in Israel — said he thought it was likely the Knesset would pass legislation reversing the decision. “Politics will win out until the Israeli public makes clear it wishes for a more equitable society.”

The Law of Return and Non-Orthodox Conversion

The basic idea behind the Law of Return was stated in Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles (kibbutz galuyot).” After the Law of Return was passed in 1950, debates surfaced about who was considered to have Jewish status under the law.

This question played out in a famous 1962 Israeli Supreme Court decision involving a monk called Brother Daniel. Born Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jew, Brother Daniel had converted to Catholicism during the Holocaust and saved hundreds of Jews from being deported to concentration camps. In the 1950s, Brother Daniel wanted to make aliyah to Israel, hoping to escape a surge of antisemitism in Poland at the time. However, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that he did not qualify for the Law of Return because he had converted to a different religion.

In 1970, the Law of Return was amended to include anyone who has a Jewish parent or grandparent and anyone whose spouse has a Jewish parent or grandparent. The amendment also defined a Jew as “one who was born to a Jewish mother or converted, while not being a member of another religion.”

The recent Supreme Court ruling addressed the question of the meaning of the word “converted” in that definition. Their decision marked a significant development in a decades-long debate over whether the Law of Return should only apply to Orthodox converts or include Reform and Conservative converts as well.

In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that people who converted to Judaism through non-Orthodox movements outside the state of Israel are included in the Law of Return. This created a situation in which Israel recognized Reform and Conservative conversions when performed outside the country, but not when performed within the Jewish state.

However, the Orthodox Rabbinate — which controls marriage, divorce, burial and other family matters in Israel — does not recognize non-Orthodox converts as Jewish. Therefore, these converts, while allowed to make aliyah, are not permitted to get married or divorced within Israel. Now that the law has been extended to non-Orthodox converts from within Israel, the same limitations will apply to them.

The Bottom Line

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict typically gets the most attention, it is the conflict between different Jewish communities — and between Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state — which are perhaps Israel’s most perilous challenges. For some, defining Jewish identity is “of course” based on Orthodox Jewish law; for others, Jewish identity is “of course” more broadly defined.

For the sake of the relationship between Israeli and World Jewry and the entire Jewish community, we hope Jewish leaders come together to rethink this challenge, interpret one another charitably and work toward solving these problems together. Instead of “Jew versus Jew,” we can become “Jew with Jew.”