Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israel’s High Court Validates Reform and Conservative Conversion in Israel (March 8, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Israel’s High Court validates Reform and Conservative conversion in Israel


Q. A few hundred people are converted to Judaism every year in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis. Why is the recent High Court recognition of their Jewishness significant?

A. Until now, Reform and Conservative conversions were considered valid for purposes of immigration to Israel under the law of return, and for marriage in Israel, only if the conversions were carried out abroad. That way, Israeli Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) could somehow argue that in Israel halacha, or Jewish practice, remained firmly under their control.

The High Court’s ruling last week constitutes a major step toward legitimizing all streams of Judaism in Israel. Reform and Conservative rabbis can now convert as well as minister to various aspects of Jewish religious life. And beyond those few hundred annual Reform and Conservative converts, there are around half a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and their descendants, who are not recognized as Jews by the establishment because they cannot point to a Jewish mother or maternal grandmother. 

Many of these Israelis, whom we encounter as officers in the IDF, hi-tech geniuses, professors in universities and doctors and nurses in our hospitals, want to convert but are deterred by Haredi and Orthodox demands and negative attitudes. The High Court ruling opens a door to a tolerant and pluralistic approach to conversion that is far more attractive.


Q. Why is the Haredi establishment so angry?

A. When it comes to marriage, divorce and conversion, monopoly means power, influence over the education of generations to come, and money. This, with regard to a Haredi religious establishment that is not even Zionist. True, there is also an element here of sincere belief in an extreme way of life. But why impose it on the rest of us?

Last week a Haredi member of Knesset, Yitzhak Pindrus, reacted to an IDF conversion of a woman soldier--a conversion that is merely Orthodox and relatively lenient--by calling the soldier a “Shikseh”, a derogative term for a non-Jewish woman. He added that the family of a man who marries her should mourn for him as if he had died. His disgusting comments reflected the fact that the High Court ruling was not only an insult to his rigid and extreme belief system--Haredim believe that for moral reasons women should not serve in the army in the first place-- but was also a potential cause of loss of status and influence.

That was not an isolated response. Both Haredi political parties, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, both allied politically with the Likud, poured oil on the fire. The Ashkenazic United Torah Judaism argued scathingly that the High Court’s conversion ruling would end up with dogs being converted to Judaism. The Sephardic Shas was scandalized that blacks could be converted. Likud leader Netanyahu, himself a very secular Jew who was once married to a Conservative convert but is now more than ever in need of his Haredi allies, tweeted that “The High Court has passed a resolution that endangers the Law of Return, which is a fundamental pillar of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”. Here the implication was that masses of cosmetically converted, many of them third-world job-seekers, would flood Israel. Netanyahu and the Likud, after all, have led racist campaigns against illegal immigrants seeking refugee status.

The bottom line of all this bigotry, racism and Jewish fanaticism was encountered when the Sephardic and Ashkenazic chief rabbis and the leaders of the two Haredi parties proclaimed that the Haredi condition for joining any future coalition would be legislation that overrides the High Court ruling and restores their control over conversions.


Q. Why wasn’t the Reform and Conservative conversion issue decided by the Knesset long ago? Where were these Haredi objectors all this time?

A. Chief Justice Esther Hayut complained that the political establishment had had 15 years to legislate on the issue but had refused to. “The Court”, she wrote, “had been asked time and again to delay its ruling, yet during this same time nothing was done to advance relevant legislation.” Three of the nine justices who ruled nearly unanimously last week, all three Orthodox, concurred with the need for the High Court to rule because the political establishment had abdicated its obligation to regularize the conversion issue. Many liberal-Orthodox media commentators agreed that the High Court ruling was long overdue and that the justices could hardly be accused of “judicial activism”--a hot topic in Israel--for delivering justice where the Knesset had long shunned its obligation to legislate.

This brings us to the really heavy issues of principal and faith in Israeli life and in Jewish life: the definition of Israel as “Jewish and democratic”, the Law of Return, the fact that ‘Jewish’ in Israel is increasingly understood as religious in nature when a large portion of Israeli and Diaspora Jews are secular.

It also brings us, like it or not, to Jewish politics. On the one hand, Netanyahu’s desperation to escape trial and possible conviction on corruption charges has rendered him politically depend on some 15-17 Haredi members of his coalition. The Haredim, like those who are sticking with Netanyahu in the Likud and on the far right, prioritize sectarian interests over the rule of law.

Yet on the other hand, Netanyahu fears the consequences for world Jewish support for Israel and for his legacy if he totally cuts off the American Jewish non-Orthodox mainstream. So he rebuffs Haredi pressure to legislate against Reform and Conservative conversion. He hedges and delays on issues like regulating mixed-gender and non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, the Western Wall. In 2017 he appointed an arbiter--former government minister Moshe Nissim, naturally an Orthodox Jew--to propose a compromise which in any case was rejected by the Haredim, who can compromise here and there on politics but never on their extreme, cult-like beliefs. Nissim’s was one of a long line of moderate Orthodox compromise proposals rejected religiously by the Haredim.

Now the High Court has, on at least one issue, called Netanyahu’s bluff. To be fair, we should note that Israel’s leaders going all the way back to David Ben-Gurion have avoided the ‘who is a Jew’ issue like fire.


Q. So this High Court recognition is significant for Israel and world Jewry at some sort of strategic level?

A. Absolutely. At the end of the day, Israel has only two strategic allies in this world: the United States, and the American Jewish community. Forget about those Evangelical supporters who are only waiting for us to disappear at the End of Days. And forget about new “allies” like the Emirates who will not lift a finger to fight alongside Israel.

During the Obama and Trump years, Netanyahu endangered the two strategic alliances. Defying custom and precedent, he campaigned actively against President Obama’s Iran strategy. And he openly advocated on at least two issues, Iran and the two-state solution, against the sentiment of the large majority of American Jews who are liberal and non-Orthodox.

Regarding the sort of Israel we aspire to--democratic? Jewish?--with the passage of time a divide has emerged whereby American Jews increasingly put ‘democratic’ first and Israeli right-wingers led by Netanyahu put ‘Jewish’ first: not Jewish national or ethnic identity, but Orthodox Jewish identity, a kind of right-religious ultra-nationalism. This divide endangers Israel by gradually reducing American Jewish, and by extension American, support for Israel. And it affects the American Jewish community by distancing it from the world’s only Jewish state, one committed to supporting Jews everywhere.

It also, by the way, endangers Israel’s own cohesiveness. It’s not just that half a million Israelis of Russian extraction are not allowed to fully ‘belong’. Haredi expletives regarding ‘shiksehs’ and ‘Jewish dogs’ compound the anger of many Israelis who over the past year have been alienated by Haredi non-compliance with national covid regulations.

For avowedly secular political parties like Meretz, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beitenu, disgust with the behavior of the Haredi 11 percent of Israel’s Jewish population has become a key campaign issue. The Labor party’s Knesset list features the leader of Israel’s Reform Jews, Rabbi (and lawyer) Gilad Kariv, in the safe number four slot. Having Kariv in the Knesset will, for the first time, give Israeli Reform and Conservative Jewry an official advocate there. That should be interesting: the Haredim have vowed to walk out whenever he speaks.


Q. With all this talk of Reform and Conservative as opposed to Orthodox and Haredi conversions, there remains a large segment of world Jewry who feel Jewish, or want to feel Jewish, without a religious imprimatur. . . 

A. Years ago, then-minister of justice Yossi Beilin, who made a major contribution to Israeli-Diaspora Jewish unity by creating Birthright (offering a free trip to Israel for Jews aged 18 to 32), proposed a ‘secular entry gate to Judaism’ based on adherence to secular Jewish values of identity. That idea got nowhere. Yet Jewish atheists abound, both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

When my future wife and I wanted to marry 56 years ago, the very secular kibbutz where we lived as new immigrants took us to the rabbi of nearby Zichron Yaakov, who would perform the ceremony. He demanded ‘proof’ that we were Jewish. By this time I was an IDF officer, in uniform for the occasion. Rabbi Yekutieli ignored my objections.

We complied. My parents quickly obtained a letter from the Conservative rabbi of their congregation in Washington DC, who had officiated at my bar mitzvah (I had stayed clear of synagogues ever since). The rabbi gave his first name as Henry, not Chaim, wrote in English, and omitted the Hebrew date.

My fiance’s father, a distinguished physician who like his daughter had never set foot in a synagogue, was referred by knowledgeable fellow doctors at his hospital to a Haredi rabbi in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. As instructed, he put $50 in a collection box, recited his daughter’s name and emerged with a glowing endorsement in Hebrew of her Judaism.

Rabbi Yekutieli, whose name was on every bottle of Carmel Mizrachi wine, dismissed my letter out of hand. It was only my fiance’s letter that saved the day, causing him to summon his wife into the room to celebrate the fact that such a distinguished Torah scholar had written him. A bucket of live Carp from the kibbutz fishponds for the rabbi’s Shabbat dinner helped too.

So Netanyahu is not the only hypocrite here. Yet if the controversy over the latest High Court ruling contributes to his removal from power, his punishment will be well deserved.