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Israeli Supreme Court Recognizes Non-Orthodox Converts as Jews

A panel of 11 Israeli Supreme Court judges wearing face masks hear arguments against the legality of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition deal, at the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem, May 4, 2020.

After more than 15 years of debate, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled Monday that non-Orthodox converts to Judaism are Jewish and thus entitled to become citizens.

The decision includes those who convert to Judaism through the country’s Reform and Conservative movements.

“Jews who during their stay in Israel were legally converted in a Reform or Conservative community must be recognized as Jews,” the court wrote in its majority decision.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of expanding citizenship by 8-1. Justice Noam Sohlberg, the only dissent, said that while he agreed with “the legal conclusion of the verdict,” the government should have more time to pass legislation on the issue.

Reform and Conservative Jews make up 13% of Israeli society, according to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics. In the United States, they represent most affiliated Jews.

“If the state of Israel claims to be the nation-state of the Jewish world, then the state of Israel must recognize all the denominations of Judaism and imbue them with equality and respect,” said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, leader of the Reform movement.

COVID-19 restrictions during Purim in Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, Feb. 28, 2021.
COVID-19 restrictions during Purim in Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, Feb. 28, 2021.

Among the ultra-Orthodox, the decision was mostly unwelcomed.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, condemned the decision and said it constitutes “a mortal blow to the Jewish character of the state.”

“I promise to fix the law to ensure that only conversions under Orthodox religious law will be recognized in the state of Israel,” said Deri, who is in charge of immigration policies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will seek reelection on March 23, reposted a tweet from his Likud Party, stressing that the decision should be left “for the people.”

Despite the symbolic weight of the ruling, the decision would affect about 30 people per year who convert while in Israel, mostly the spouses of Israeli citizens, The Associated Press reported. Conservative or reformed conversions done overseas were always recognized for Israeli citizenship.