The High Court of Justice ruled Monday that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements must be recognised as Jews for the purpose of the Law of Return, and are thus entitled to Israeli citizenship.
The bombshell decision, which shatters the longstanding Orthodox monopoly on officially recognised conversions in Israel, was the culmination of an appeal process that began more than 15 years ago, involving 12 people in the country who converted to Judaism through non-Orthodox denominations. The justices specified that they had previously withheld issuing a ruling to allow the state to handle the matter, but the state had failed to do so.
Most of the petitions were launched in 2005, Chief Justice Esther Hayut noted, and the court repeatedly postponed a ruling to enable legislation.
“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.
The ruling was 8-1, with Justice Noam Sohlberg dissenting. Sohlberg said that while he agreed with “the legal conclusion of the verdict,” more time should be granted for the government to pass legislation on the issue.
The decision was denounced by right-wing religious politicians, who vowed to advance legislation in the next parliament to overturn it, and by the chief rabbis of Israel.
“What the Reform and Conservatives call ‘conversion’ is nothing but a forgery of Judaism,” Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said in a statement, calling on lawmakers to work for a “quick” legislative fix.
Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau claimed those who undergo Reform or Conservative conversions “are not Jews.”
“No High Court decision will change this fact,” he was quoted as saying by the Kan public broadcaster.
Lau added: “The court is approving the flooding of the State of Israel with immigrants who have nothing to do with Judaism. How is the State of Israel the Jewish state if every gentile can become a citizen?”
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said the High Court’s decision constitutes “a mortal blow to the Jewish character of the state” and the “complete demolition of the status quo [on religious affairs in Israel] that has been upheld for over 70 years.”
Shas said that the ruling underlines the court’s disconnection from the majority of the Israeli people, “who want to maintain the Jewish state and preserve Judaism according to traditions that go back thousands of years.”
The party vowed to initiate legislation to overturn the court’s ruling and to support legislation that will prevent the court from intervening in such matters in the future.
The heads of the fellow ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party denounced the ruling as “disastrous for the significance of the term ‘Jewish state.’” Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and UTJ MK Moshe Gafni said that they would demand the advancement of a so-called override clause, allowing the Knesset to overturn High Court rulings, as a condition for joining a coalition after the March 23 elections.
Both parties said they would not join a future coalition that was not committed to overturning or legislating to nullify the ruling.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the ruling, though members of his Likud party, which is closely allied with Shas and UTJ, denounced it.
“The High Court decision is scandalous! It will bring disaster upon us,” coalition whip Miki Zohar tweeted.
Zohar also claimed: “Anyone around the world can go to a Reform rabbi and receive permission to immigrate to Israel within 30 days. It’s clear that in a short time, Israel will no longer be Jewish or democratic.”
Monday’s ruling only applies to conversions in Israel. A previous court decision forced the state to recognise non-Orthodox conversions abroad for purposes of immigration, but not those performed in the country.
MK Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party castigated the High Court, accusing it of “intervening in government decisions and forgetting its role.”
The State of Israel’s stance on conversion to Judaism, said the Orthodox nationalist party, “will be determined by the democratically elected representatives of the people, not by jurists.”
It also said it would advance legislation on the issue based on a framework devised by former justice minister Moshe Nissim.
Secularist politicians, meanwhile, hailed the court ruling.
“Israel must have complete equality of rights for all streams of Judaism – Orthodox, Reform or Conservative,” said Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party. “We all need to live here together with tolerance and mutual respect.”
“A sane government will put an end to the ridiculous situation whereby Israel is the only democracy in the world without freedom of religion for Jews.”
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman called the decision “historic.”
He said his party would “continue to battle religious coercion and to preserve the State of Israel’s character as a Jewish, Zionist and liberal state.”
The latest ruling follows a 2016 High Court decision ordering the state to recognise private conversions to Orthodox Judaism that are conducted outside the framework of the Chief Rabbinate.
This article first appeared in The Times of Israel, an Israeli based online newspaper.