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Israeli Court Says Converts to Non-Orthodox Judaism Can Claim Citizenship

JERUSALEM — The question of who is and isn’t a Jew has always been a subject of debate within Israel. Since the state was founded, the government has largely deferred to Orthodox Jewish authorities, who do not view converts to more liberal forms of Judaism as Jewish.

But on Monday, the Israeli Supreme Court struck a symbolic blow for a more pluralistic vision of Jewish identity: It granted the right to automatic citizenship to foreigners who convert within the state of Israel to Conservative, also known as Masorti, or Reform Judaism.

The decision was mainly symbolic because typically, only 30 or 40 foreigners convert to Reform or Masorti Judaism in Israel every year, according to the Israel Religious Action Center, the rights group that led efforts to obtain the court ruling.

But the ruling chips away some of the monopoly Orthodox rabbis have held over questions of religious identity that are central to frictions within Israeli society. It also inflames a long-running debate about the relationship between Israel’s civil and religious authorities — and particularly the role of the Supreme Court.

The Israeli right has portrayed the court as a bastion of the country’s secular and liberal elite, acting without democratic legitimacy. And though the court delayed ruling in this case for years, hoping Parliament would vote on it instead, the court’s critics were already making political capital from the decision on Monday night.

The party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a regular antagonist of the Israeli courts who is on trial on corruption charges, swiftly cited the decision as a reason to vote for the party and “ensure a stable right-wing government that will restore sovereignty to the people.”

Israel’s “Law of Return” gives foreign-born Jews, or anyone with a Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse, the automatic right to claim Israeli citizenship. Those who convert to non-Orthodox Judaism in another country have been able to gain Israeli citizenship for decades.

Despite the small numbers involved, the court’s ruling held deep significance for the campaigners and plaintiffs who first brought the case to the Supreme Court in 2005, and for the Orthodox authorities who opposed them.

“It’s a tremendous sense of relief and gratitude and gratification,” said Anat Hoffman, the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center. “This verdict really opens the gates for Israel to have more than one way to be Jewish.”

One of Israel’s two chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef, called it a “a deeply regrettable decision,” and said that conversions to the Reform and Conservative communities were “nothing but counterfeit Judaism.”

“Public representatives are to be expected to work quickly to correct this legislation,” he said, “and the sooner they do so the better.’‘

The news is particularly sensitive ahead of next month’s general election, Israel’s fourth in two years. The battle between Israel’s secular and religious communities has been a major feature of the pandemic and a source of debate in the election campaign, as has the role of the Supreme Court.

“It is a big deal because for 15 years there has been an impasse over this issue,” said Ofer Zalzberg, director of the Middle East program at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group. “And it comes just a month before an election, so it becomes dramatically more politicized, and it touches people in visceral places: Who are we? What is our identity? And what are our freedoms?”

Mr. Zalzberg said, “This has already triggered a backlash among a large constituency who reject the court’s right to take decisions about what Jewish collective identity is all about.”

There are still restrictions on the marriage of non-Orthodox converts to Judaism, since this area is controlled by Israel’s chief rabbinate, which does not recognize Reform or Conservative Judaism. There is no civil marriage in Israel.

But for non-Orthodox Jews the Supreme Court decision constituted a moment of qualified relief — both inside Israel and among the diaspora.

“It affirms that Israel is a homeland for all Jews,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the joint head of an international association of rabbis who practice Conservative Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “The ruling is an important step in guaranteeing religious freedom in Israel and recognizing the diversity of the Jewish people and its practices in Israel and throughout the world.”

Within Israel, the overwhelming majority of Jews are either Orthodox or secular, but liberal rabbis said that there had already been an uptick in the number of non-Jews seeking to convert to more liberal streams of Judaism.

Rabbi Gregory Kotler, a Reform rabbi in Haifa, in northern Israel, said he had received roughly 20 new requests in a matter of hours.

“I almost didn’t want to answer your call,” he said with a laugh, “because I thought it was another person asking for conversion.”

The Israel Religious Action Center stressed that each new would-be convert would undergo a rigorous conversion process that takes two or three years.

Orthodox critics “will claim that we are Jewish-lite, they will say terrible things about our conversion,” said Ms. Hoffman. “But it’s not true. We demand that they become part of our communities.”

Gabby Sobelman and Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem and Elizabeth Dias from Washington.

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