Israeli high court sparks the Who is a Jew debate

tel aviv | Maya Gabai considers herself a Jew.

Recently, the 25-year-old Romanian celebrated her conversion under the auspices of Israel’s Conservative movement.

But on Nov. 19 Gabai, who has lived in Israel for six years, was miffed by an Israeli government opinion submitted to the high court maintaining that only conversions overseen by official, state-sanctioned, Orthodox rabbinical courts should be honored.

“I am 100 percent a Jew,” said Gabai, who married an Israeli man last year and plans to stay in Israel. “All this is about politics, not about what I feel.”

In the latest battle over conversion in Israel, the state opinion was submitted in response to an appeal by a group of 15 foreigners wishing to have their Conservative or Reform conversions in Israel recognized by the state.

But the state, wary of foreigners in Israel converting en masse for the citizenship benefits that follow, said Nov. 17 that they would not recognize what they termed “private conversions” — conversions that are not overseen and approved by the Orthodox-run rabbinate.

“The moment they convert everybody that comes, this contradicts the meaning of conversion because conversion should stem from a real desire to be a Jew, not a real desire to be an Israeli,” said Yochie Gnessin, who is representing the state in the case.

Gnessin said the government’s position is intended to protect the integrity of Israel’s Law of Return, which gives Jews the automatic right to Israeli citizenship.

The government opinion was the latest salvo in a debate that has long roiled both Israel and the diaspora.

The Israeli courts have played an active role in the conversion controversy over the years. In 1989, the high court ruled that Reform and Conservative conversions conducted overseas would be recognized in Israel.

The high court is expected to rule on the current case, which was filed in 1999, in the coming months.

Reform and Conservative officials in Israel insist the move is just the latest government attempt to entrench the Orthodox monopoly on conversion.

Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel who is in charge of conversion in the country, said he stood by the government opinion.

He said that an Orthodox conversion is the only conversion considered valid according to halachah, or Jewish law.

He said the Conservative and Reform movements do not do conversions according to halachah; “they do not know halachah, they themselves do not follow halachah.”

“Conversion is not a contract for renting an apartment or starting a business,” he said, adding that “conversion means accepting the mitzvot and it is important that a convert knows and observes them.”

In a highly unusual development, the state’s opinion notes that Interior Minister Avraham Poraz has a dissenting opinion.

Poraz, whose ministry oversees immigration, said he believes non-Orthodox conversions conducted in Israel should be recognized by the state.

As many as 300,000 of the nearly 1 million immigrants who came to Israel in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union pay taxes and serve in the army, but can’t marry Jews in Israel or be buried in Jewish cemeteries.

Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative movement in Israel, said in response to the government filing: “I trust the court to reject this reply and declare that the Conservative and Reform conversions are equal to the Orthodox.”

Bandel suggested that the government was motivated by political considerations, trying to maintain the status quo on conversion because Prime Minister Ariel Sharon needs the support of the religious parties to maintain his shaky coalition.

The government’s opinion marked “the latest episode on the ‘Who is a Jew’ controversy that for years dominated the agenda in Israel-diaspora relations,” Bandel said.

“We were hoping that finally the state would realize that any discrimination against non-Orthodox streams is unacceptable and illegal,’ he said.