JERUSALEM – Israel’s Supreme Court ruled Monday that foreigners who convert to Judaism in Israel could be eligible for citizenship, but sidestepped the key issue of whether the decision applies to conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis.
The case, under deliberation for nearly five years, has been closed watched by the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism, which are the two largest in the United States, but have been battling for recognition in Israel for years.
Under current practice, only those converted by the Orthodox religious establishment in Israel or those converted abroad, including by non-Orthodox rabbis, are eligible for citizenship under Israel’s “Law of Return.”
The case heard by the Supreme Court was brought by 15 foreigners who studied for Reform or Conservative conversions in Israel, but had the ceremonies performed abroad, in hopes of getting around the limitations on local conversions.
Israeli authorities objected to the conversions of the 15, saying the Law of Return does not apply to foreigners already living in Israel.
The judges, voting 7-4, said the government could not discriminate between conversions performed in Israel or abroad and said the appellants, several of them foreign workers, could be considered for citizenship.
“It’s hard to understand why a person who visited legally and even studied for a conversion in Israel and then converted abroad would not be seen as an immigrant according to the Law of Return after he converted and requested to live in Israel permanently,” a summary of the ruling said.
However, the judges did not directly address the question of whether non-Orthodox conversions should be accepted. Instead, they ordered Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, whose ministry oversees immigration rules, to decide within 45 days.
Poraz, a member of the centrist Shinui Party, said he would handle the cases with an open mind. “I will be happy to deal with this in a way that allows a large population in Israel to convert to Judaism,” Poraz told Israel Army Radio.
Nicole Maor, the lawyer for the converts, said the decision was a boost for the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.
“We hope that today the excuses are finished and that in 45 days, the Interior Ministry will rule that it recognizes non-Orthodox conversions in Israel,” she said.
Even if the conversions are ultimately recognized, the converts could run into trouble with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment when dealing with religious affairs. The Orthodox rabbis have a monopoly on marriages, divorces and burials.
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