Oct 18, 2021
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A recent High Court ruling 8-9 allowed people who converted via the Reform movement in Israel to acquire citizenship. But some critics fear that this new law will open a back door for non-Jews to make Aliyah while only pretending to be a member of God’s Chosen People. 

Ruling: Reform Conversion in Israel Valid for Acquiring Citizenship

On Monday, Israel’s High Court of Justice ended a 15-year debate, ruling 8-9 that conversion to Judaism carried out by the Reform and Conservative/Masorti movements in Israel will confer Jewish identity for the purposes of acquiring citizenship. The sole naysayer,  Justice Noam Sohlberg, stated that he agreed with “the legal conclusion of the verdict” but noted that Israel is about to hold elections later this month. He preferred to delay enacting the law for one year from the swearing-in of a new government to allow the new government to pass legislation on the issue.

The decision expands the 1988 ruling by the High Court that required non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel to be recognized for the purposes of aliyah and citizenship. This expressly excluded conversions performed by the same movements inside Israel. The decision comes after the Israeli Reform and Masorti movements filed a petition to the High Court in 2005 to be included in this ruling. 

In announcing their decision, the justices specified that they had previously withheld issuing a ruling to allow the state to handle the matter, but the state had failed to do so.

According to The Israel Democracy Institute, as of 2013, approximately eight percent of Israel’s Jewish population “identified” with Reform and Conservative Judaism. The movements perform about 30-40 conversions every year.

Conversion as a Back Door to Israeli Citizenship

Tommy Waller, head of the Hayovel organization, suggested that conversion via the Reform movement in the US may be a back door for Christians to become Israeli citizens. 

“There are many Christians who will 100% take this an opportunity,” Waller told Israel365 News. “Many are already familiar with the Reform movement. They are welcome in the Reform synagogues and many pray there as practicing and believing Christians. This is not well-known but it is fairly widespread. It depends on the Christians and on the rabbis but it does exist.”

Waller absolutely decires this as underhanded and duplicitous. He noted that ironically, the Aliyah process might be more difficult for self-defined Messianic Jews, i.e. ethnically Jewish people who believe in Jesus. There is a Christian community in Israel made up of Christian Arabs and Israel is de facto and de jure a religiously diverse country. A Supreme Court ruling in 1989 decided that Messianic Judaism constituted another religion and that people who had become Messianic Jews were not, therefore, eligible for Aliyah under the Law of Return. Despite this, Messianic Jews are considered to be eligible for Aliyah if they can claim Jewish ancestry, as are people of any religion who have Jewish ancestry. There are currently 10-20,000 Messianic Jews in Israel, many of them immigrants. 

“Reform Conversion in Israel is Not a Back Door to Citizenship” 

Rabbi Gregory Kotler is responsible for the conversions performed by the Reform movement in Israel. He emphasized that many Orthodox Jews and rabbis have misconceptions about the process as it is carried out under his auspices.

“The Reform conversion process differs from the Orthodox process in the perception of what constitutes a Jewish lifestyle and the expectations of how the convert will relate to this before and after his conversion,” Rabbi Kotler explained. “Orthodox conversion expects the convert to live an Orthodox lifestyle after conversion. We are satisfied with the convert living a Jewish lifestyle, being a Jew, as he chooses. Jews from birth are not required to be Orthodox or even step foot in a synagogue once in their life in order to be classified as Jews and we believe that neither should those who choose to become Jewish. We educate them and encourage them but they are free to choose how they express their Jewish identity.”

Rabbi Kotler emphasized that Reform conversion is not a “back door” to Israeli citizenship.

“A person cannot have beliefs from another religion, such as a belief in Jesus, and convert through our process,” he said emphatically. Rabbi Kotler, originally from Russia, deals with many Russians in Israel, many of whom are not classified as Jewish by Halacha (Torah law) which is matrilinear, requiring that the mother be Jewish. “If a person comes from a Christian or Catholic background, we ask them directly about their beliefs. If he continues to believe in Jesus, of course, we do not allow him to convert.”

“I do not know how this issue is handled outside of Israel, but in Israel, it is not possible for a person to convert while he maintains a different contradictory set of beliefs,” Rabbi Kotler said. “We do the conversion; converting a person’s religion, in this case from Christianity to Judaism. They are different religions, each with its own set of required beliefs.”

“A person cannot be both a Christian and a Jew at the same time,” Rabbi Kotler said. “We are not Jews for Jesus. If a person wants to remain a Christian and his Christian beliefs, he can do so but he will need to find a different way to become an Israeli citizen.”

Orthodox Conversion used as a Back Door

Sondra Oster Baras, one of the founders of Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, has many years of experience building positive connections with Christians who come to Israel. Nonetheless, she warned that driven by ulterior motives, some Christians have converted while retaining their Christian beliefs.  

“Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis are one hundred percent united in refusing to convert anyone who retains any kind of Christian belief,” Baras told Israel365 News. “What I have seen is that sometimes, the Reform and Conservative rabbis have a better understanding of what is going on in the Diaspora. Orthodox rabbis in Israel are unaware of the nuances of the kinds of people who are coming to convert and their motivations. I know for a fact that there are people who have come to convert in Israel through an Orthodox conversion that hid the fact that they retained their Christian beliefs. The Orthodox rabbis did not know the questions to ask.”

Other Criticisms of the Ruling

Many religious leaders and politicians came out harshly against this ruling. Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef was critical of the decision, describing the conversion process as performed by the Reform movement as “nothing but a forgery of Judaism.”  Rabbi Yosef called on politicians to renew their efforts to find a legislative decision. 

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau went further, telling Kan broadcasting that those who undergo Reform or Conservative conversions “are not Jews.”

“No High Court decision will change this fact,” Rabbi Lau said.  “The court is approving the flooding of the State of Israel with immigrants who have nothing to do with Judaism. How is the State of Israel the Jewish state if every gentile can become a citizen?”

Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the right-wing Otzma Yehudit party came out strongly against the ruling.

“In the coming elections, the people of Israel will decide between a Rightist government that will legislate to overcome limitations, make reforms in the judicial system and preserve the Jewish identity of our country – or a dangerous Leftist government that will enable the High Court to continue its control and erase any vestige of Jewishness in the state,” Ben Gvir stated.

Rabbi Dov Lipman, a former Member of Knesset (MK Yesh Atid), emphasized that this was not a case of the court preempting the religious authorities.

“The court has given 15 years to the Knesset to find a solution,” Rabbi Lipman told Israel365 News. “The court looked at the petition and decided that the people had a civil right to become citizens of the country. The court specifically said they are not getting involved in religious issues, like marriage and life-cycle events.”

“Everyone has to sit around a table and address this,” Rabbi Lipman said. “It is not going to be an easy process but there is room and a need for compromise to bring about a uniform policy for what is required for conversion to be acceptable. If this process had taken place among the religious leaders, the court would not have intervened.”