Israel: Orthodox Religious Parties Shaken by Supreme Court Ruling on Law of Return


JERUSALEM — In a groundbreaking eight-to-one decision, the Israeli Supreme Court recently ruled that the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to any Jewish person who comes to Israel, applies to anyone who converted to Judaism while in Israel through a non-orthodox conversion. This ruling has created a great deal of political turmoil and anger among Zionist-religious parties and the State chief rabbinate.

In a political system like the one in Israel, where small political parties are crucial to any coalition government and are often the determining factor as to who becomes prime minister, this distress is problematic. In the Israeli Knesset, the religious parties wield a great deal of power and quite often act as kingmakers, giving their votes to one of the two larger parties and thus sealing the fate of Israeli politics one way or another. Upsetting the status quo on religious matters before a general election is bad for politics.

Luckily, the Israeli Supreme Court is not an elected body and doesn’t need to worry about coalition issues, and so, its justices are free to make rulings as they see fit. What brought the court to this particular ruling, however, was a lack of ability on the part of the legislature and the State institutions to rule on this very sensitive issue.

In Israel, Orthodox Judaism has a monopoly over all of a person’s life-cycle issues: birth, marriage, divorce and death. It also governs everything that has to do with determining the validity or purity of one’s Jewishness. The chief rabbinate of the State — not to be confused with the non-Zionist rabbinical institutions that do not recognize the State-appointed rabbinical authorities — has a monopoly on all conversions as well. It refuses to recognize conversions made by non-Orthodox rabbis.


A third-rail issue

This is true inside Israel. Outside of Israel, though, Orthodox Judaism is not the majority, and has no control over the life of Jewish people. In the United States, for example, the largest Jewish community is that of Reformed Judaism, which only barely resembles Orthodox Judaism.

For example, members of Reformed, and even the Conservative streams of Judaism, will drive to services on Friday evening or Saturday morning and the family will sit together in the sanctuary during the service, much as one might see in a church. This is in total contradiction to the tenets of Orthodox Judaism. According to Orthodox Judaism, driving on the Sabbath is strictly forbidden, and men and women must sit in separate parts of the sanctuary, which must be divided so that they cannot see each other.

A Jewish immigrant from North America kisses the ground at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. Ariel Schalit | AP

The State of Israel is obliged to support Reform and Conservative communities, as they comprise the majority of Jews outside of Israel and are also deeply Zionist. If the State of Israel denied the validity of their Jewishness or the legitimacy of their rabbinical institutions, it would be a serious slap in the face to millions of Jewish people around the world, particularly in the United States.

These non-Orthodox communities are the very Jewish communities that contribute to Israel financially and make up the foot soldiers for Israel in the halls of power in Washington. However, they do not vote in the Israeli elections and do not possess the ability to determine who will be prime minister in Israel. The Orthodox religious parties in Israel are relatively small and do not represent large communities, yet they possess the ability to do just that. It is for this reason that Israeli politicians have done everything in their power to avoid dealing with the issue of who qualifies as a Jew under the Law of Return.


The Law of Return

Zionists claim that all Jews are descendants of an ancient tribe that lived in parts of historic Palestine several thousand years ago. This, Zionists claim, gives all Jewish people the right to “return” to Palestine and reside there as citizens of the State of Israel, a state that has occupied Palestine and imposed an apartheid regime on the Palestinian people since 1948.

The Law of Return was passed in 1950. The Jewish Agency, whose mission is to “ensure that every Jewish person feels an unbreakable bond to one another and to Israel,” says the following about the law:

With the inception of the State of Israel, two thousand years of wandering were officially over. Since then, Jews have been entitled to simply show up and request to be Israeli citizens, assuming they posed no imminent danger to public health, state security, or the Jewish people as a whole. Essentially, all Jews everywhere are Israeli citizens by right.

This law also stands in contrast to Israeli laws that make it impossible for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and their land and receive their property, both private and public, and that deny them citizenship in their own homeland. The Law of Return is one of the first laws passed by the Israeli Knesset that clearly define Israel as an Apartheid State, a state where there is one set of laws that affords privileges to Jews, even if they do not live there, and a different set of laws that denies Palestinians their rights to the land.


Who is a Jew?

Where the law gets into trouble is when attempting to answer the question “Who is a Jew?” This is a question that Zionists have no idea how to answer and so they have been trying to avoid it, but it keeps returning to haunt them. According to Judaism itself, a Jewish person is someone who accepts the Almighty and follows the Torah, which was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. One can be born Jewish and one can also convert to Judaism.

The religious authorities in the State of Israel view all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism as not Jewish and do not recognize their conversions. However, for the purposes of the Law of Return, the State recognizes any conversions undergone outside of Israel as long as they were carried out by recognized Jewish authorities, even non-Orthodox ones.


Non-Orthodox conversion in Israel

In 2005, several cases of converts who converted to Judaism in Israel but with non-Orthodox institutions (the minority in Israel) were brought before the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the matter needed to be decided by the legislature. Since then, cases were brought in front of the court several times, and each time the State requested more time so that the Knesset could resolve this issue of non-Orthodox conversion that took place in Israel.

Israel Ethiopia

Ethiopian Jews hold photos of relatives in Israel at a solidarity event. Ethiopian Jews were forced to convert to Orthodox Judaism before emigrating to Israel. Mulugeta Ayene | AP

The Knesset, however, was not able to do so, and the Court made its ruling: since the Law of Return does not discriminate between Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversions when Jews come to settle in Israel, there should be no such discrimination when the conversion takes place in Israel.

The Orthodox conversion process is far more difficult and takes longer than the non-Orthodox conversion and much of the criticism directed at this ruling has to do with the concern that African asylees who have lived in Israel for decades may take advantage of it. There is an entire movement within Israel that wants to see Africans who live and work in Israel (in some cases for decades) deported and that movement fears that Africans may utilize the less stringent non-Orthodox conversion in order to establish themselves as Jews and therefore deserving of the benefits of the Right of Return, namely lawful citizenship.


Zionist chauvinism raises its head

This ruling by the Supreme Court is a serious slap in the face of the State Rabbinate, which until now had the monopoly on conversions. Right-wing religious politicians like Naftali Bennett, who is eyeing the prime minister’s seat, and Bezalel Smotrich — who are both inherently chauvinistic and racist and represent the religious-Zionist political parties — immediately expressed their displeasure with the Supreme Court’s intervention in this issue.

The religious right in Israel has been at odds with the Supreme Court for years, as it is considered to be too liberal for their taste. Mixing politics and religion creates a toxic reaction, and Israel is no exception. Zionism and its distortion of what it means to be Jewish have created a deeply racist, chauvinistic state. The sooner the Zionist regime is removed and Palestine is free, the better it will be for everyone involved.

Feature photo | Israeli soldiers and relatives of new Jewish immigrants from the US and Canada, wave Israeli flags to welcome them as they arrive at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. Ariel Schalit | AP

Miko Peled is MintPress News contributing writer, published author and human rights activist born in Jerusalem. His latest books are”The General’s Son. Journey of an Israeli in Palestine,” and “Injustice, the Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five.”

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