Israel's Orthodox groups face challenge over Jewish identity

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The Independent Online

Israel's Supreme Court has delivered a landmark ruling, reviving a controversy as old as the Jewish state and as divisive for Jews as the Reformation was for Christians.

Israel's Supreme Court has delivered a landmark ruling, reviving a controversy as old as the Jewish state and as divisive for Jews as the Reformation was for Christians.

By a majority of 7-4, the court ruled yesterday that gentiles who studied for conversion to Judaism in non-Orthodox Israeli training courses, completing the process abroad, had an automatic right to come back and obtain instant Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

The verdict is being seen by many as a significant step towards recognising the right of Reform and Conservative rabbis to carry out non-Orthodox conversions in Israel itself. In effect, it redefines who is a Jew in Israeli civil law and threatens the iron control of the Orthodox establishment in Israel over Jewish marriage, divorce, conversion and burial.

Would-be converts based in Israel wishing to train for conversion in the liberal streams of the Jewish tradition are currently unable to complete the process in the country, as a result of pressure from the Orthodox Jewish establishment. As a result many go abroad to convert, but up until now have been denied the privileges accorded to Orthodox Jewish converts.

Ophir Pines-Paz, the Israeli Interior Minister, said that the ruling would be applied "in the clearest manner". It provided solutions, he added, for a great many people "who are living among us today and are forced to go through a very difficult, frustrating and exhausting procedure."

Orthodox leaders were furious at the court decision. The Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, said: "There aren't two movements or three movements in Judaism. There is only one Judaism. Whoever doesn't go through an Orthodox conversion is not a Jew."

His Ashkenazi opposite number, Yonah Metzger, warned that the ruling would "split the nation in two". The Law of Return, adopted in 1950 and still resented by Palestinians, asserts that "every Jew has the right to immigrate to the country". David Ben-Gurion, the founding father, explained: "It is not the state which grants the right to settle in the state to the Jew abroad. This right is ingrained in him insofar as he is a Jew."

The first breach in the Orthodox monopoly came in 1989, when the Supreme Court held that non-Orthodox proselytes converted in their own countries counted as Jews for immigration and citizenship purposes. The Reform and Conservative movements represent a majority of American Jews and a growing minority in Britain, though they remain marginal in Israel. They offer a less stringent entry ticket to Judaism.

Justina Castro, a Peruvian housemaid who has lived with an Israeli common-law husband for 10 years, will be one of the first to benefit from the ruling. She told The Independent she was "satisfied and delighted". She has worked for 22 years for Dalia Rabin, daughter of the assassinated prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. The Interior Ministry has renewed her visa every six months. She lives with Yosef Ben-Moshe, 53, in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. She took a 12-month Reform study course in Tel Aviv, then converted in Argentina. "I love Judaism," she said. "I wanted to be Jewish and I want to be Israeli."

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