Analysis: Court Forces Knesset To Determine Character Of Jewish State

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut presides over the high court in Jerusalem, March 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

JERUSALEM (VINnews) — Monday’s bombshell decision by the Israeli supreme court to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel with regard to the right to citizenship in the country is not necessarily a blow to the orthodox hegemony on conversion. Rather it is a wake up call to the Knesset and especially to the religious parties to stop vacillating on the issue and initiate legislation which will maintain the Jewish character of the state.

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Since 2005, the contentious issue of Reform and Conservative conversions has in fact been in the hands of the legislative arm. The court on more than one occasion had deferred its ruling on the matter, despite the fact that 12 non-orthodox converts had petitioned the court in 2005 to allow them to register as Israeli citizens. Yet despite this the Knesset did not discuss the issue or propose a solution for the matter.

“We refrained from issuing a ruling in order to allow the state to advance legislation on the issue,” wrote Justice Dafna Barak-Erez. But since people’s “rights hang in the balance” and no such legislation is advancing, the court decided to issue its ruling.

Right-wing MKs who are scandalized by the decision have only themselves to blame. In numerous Netanyahu administrations there was a majority which would have allowed for legislation to prevent a flood of Reform converts gaining Israeli citizenship, but legislators who know the extent of Reform and Conservative contributions to the state of Israel preferred not to implement legislation, just as they did regarding the Western Wall issue.

In 2017 the government belatedly attempted to establish a “state conversion law” which proposed that for the sake of civic recognition, only conversion according to Torah law could be recognized. In the wake of the public outcry over the issue, a committee was set up to discuss recommendations on the matter. Former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim suggested established a Conversion Authority and only recognizing conversions through this authority which were performed according to Torah law. With the political upheavals of the past few years the Knesset has yet to adopt Nissim’s proposals, leading to the court decision Monday.

Thus, after Israel has finally reached the crossroads deciding whether it will be a Jewish state or merely another democratic entity, it is time for legislators to act. The specter of Sudanese migrants or French tourists walking into a Reform synagogue and then walking out half an hour later with a conversion certificate should be enough to animate the Knesset into enacting legislation to preserve halachic conversion as the yardstick for citizenship.


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