Israel’s highest court ruled Monday that people who convert to the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism in Israel are Jewish in the eyes of the law and are entitled to Israeli citizenship.
The landmark decision from the High Court of Justice comes after 15 years of legal battles, and it challenges the near-monopoly that Israel’s chief rabbinate holds over religious matters.
Though the Reform and Conservative movements don’t have large footprints in Israel, they are the two largest Jewish denominations in the U.S., which means the court’s decision is a significant milestone for many Jewish Americans.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, who leads the Association of Reform Zionists of America, told HuffPost that he believes the place of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel is one of the biggest wedge issues causing tension between North American Jews and the country.
“To be able to see yourself recognized in the Jewish state ― this has been a particularly difficult and challenging issue for many years,” Weinberg said.
It will be “uplifting” for Jewish movements in America to be able to tell members that “we’re moving in the right direction, despite some of the horrible opposition that we’ve encountered,” he added.
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the network linking Conservative congregations in North America, told HuffPost that Monday’s decision “affirms the pluralistic nature of Jewish life inside and outside of Israel.”
“We hope that it will also lead to true equality for all forms of Jewish life in Israel, including marriage, divorce, funding and other elements currently under the control of the ultra-Orthodox,” Blumenthal said.
Liberal-leaning strains of Judaism have clashed with Israel’s chief rabbinate, which maintains jurisdiction over including religious rituals, such as marriage and conversions. The rabbinate, which is controlled by Haredi, or strictly observant, Jewish leaders doesn’t recognize the validity of Reform and Conservative Judaism.
Religious conversions matter in Israel because the country grants Jewish people certain immigration rights under the Law of Return. This law gives Jews around the world ― including people who convert to Judaism ― the right to live in Israel and gain citizenship. Since 1995, the Law of Return has applied to Reform and Conservative conversions that happen outside of Israel.
The restrictions on in-country conversions had the effect of questioning the legitimacy of non-Orthodox movements and was “deeply insulting and alienating to our members,” Blumenthal said.
David Lau, one of the country’s two chief rabbis, insisted Monday that people who convert through Reform Judaism “or something similar” are not Jewish.
“No ruling by the Supreme Court this way or that way will change this fact,” Lau said, according to The Associated Press.
Israel’s Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads a Haredi political party, said the court’s decision will “cause deep division and dissension in the country,” The Time of Israel reported.
“I promise to amend the law so that only conversion according to Jewish law is recognized by the State of Israel,” he said.
Blumenthal, the Conservative movement leader, said he was worried that after Israel’s upcoming elections, newly installed legislators could overturn the High Court ruling.
“This would not only narrow the options of Jewish life in Israel but would further drive a wedge between the Jewish people living in Israel and in other parts of the world,” he said.
Even after Monday’s ruling, marriages officiated by Reform and Conservative rabbis in Israel aren’t recognized by the rabbinate ― and since Israel doesn’t have an option for civil marriages, liberal-leaning Jewish couples often have to get married outside of the country.
Another long-standing source of tension is the fight over expanding mixed-gender prayer at the Western Wall. As it stands, the rabbinate does not approve of women reading aloud from the Torah and wearing religious garments while praying at Judaism’s holiest site.
In order to convert in Israel, the Reform movement requires people to pursue a year of intensive religious study, commit to a “Jewish lifestyle,” and perform certain rituals, such as circumcision and immersion in a Jewish ritual bath, according to the Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which has spent decades pursuing equal status for the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel.
IRAC director Rabbi Noa Sattath told HuffPost that Reform and Conservative converts face uncertainty and “severe discrimination” in the country.
Monday’s court decision was a “meaningful step in our journey towards equality,” she said.
“We are thrilled and elated,” Sattath said. “We hope this will begin a healing process in the rift that has existed in recent years between the Israeli government and our movements over our continued discrimination.”