On Feb. 20, after several years of controversy, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled to allow the registration of local non-Orthodox converts as Jews on their identity cards.
Until now, only new immigrants converted by Reform or Orthodox rabbis abroad enjoyed that right. Secular and non-orthodox Jews praised the decision as an important step, but it should rather be seen as a symbolic one: it affects only identity cards and the population registry. It has no impact upon the issue of deciding whether conversions performed by Reform or Conservative Rabbis are valid under religious law. For instance, the registration as Jews in the population registry “does not obligate the Chief Rabbinate to recognize them as Jews in matters such as marriage and burial,” according to the Jerusalem Post, Feb. 21).
However, the change has potentially far-reaching implications “for diminishing the unchallenged power of the Orthodox rabbinical establishment,” comments the Chicago Tribune (Feb. 21). Orthodox Jewish groups deplored the decision, since they feel it might lead to confusion. The leader of the Orthodox Shas Party — who happens to be Interior Minister as well — already announced that it would examine the possibility of introducing specific mentions of “Reform Jews” or “Conservative Jews” on IDs, although a previous Supreme Court ruling would seem to bar such a move.
The decision underlines once again the lasting questions surrounding both Jewish identity and the nature of the Israeli State. The court president, Aharon Barak, wrote that “Israel is the state of the Jewish people”, leaving to each individual the right to decide to which stream of Judaism he or she wants to belong. According to the Washington Post (Feb. 24), the decision could encourage immigrants of mixed Jewish or non-Jewish parentage from the former Soviet Union to convert as Reform or Conservative Jews in order to become more easily assimilated into Israeli society.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer