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Supreme Court Recognized Non-Orthodox Conversions

People who undergo non-Orthodox conversions in Israel must be registered as Jewish on their Israeli identity cards, the High Court of Justice ruled in a landmark 9-2 decision, HA'ARETZ reported.

The decision was written by Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, with Justices Shlomo Levin, Theodor Or, Eliyahu Mazza, Tova Strasberg-Cohen, Dalia Domer, Dorit Beinisch and Eliezer Rivlin concurring. It stemmed from the High Court's ruling seven years earlier that the Orthodox monopoly on conversions in Israel was illegal. At the time, the court refrained from explicitly ordering the state to recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad ever since 1986.

In 1998, the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the Ministry of Interior must also register local Reform and Conservative converts as Jewish. The State then appealed that decision, and Wednesday's ruling was the result both of that appeal and of several petitions by non-Orthodox converts. Barak said his verdict was based on a 40-year old ruling that defined the Ministry of Interior's Population Registry as strictly "a gatherer of statistical material," whose decisions regarding what to write on a person's identity card carry no weight as evidence. The outcome of this definition is that a Ministry clerk, unlike a judge, has no authority to decide whether the information given him by an applicant is true; he must record whatever the applicant tells him, unless it is blatantly false.

The Population Registry Law defines a Jew as someone born of a Jewish mother or someone who has converted, but does not define the term "converted." Furthermore, no court has ever ruled on whether non-Orthodox conversions do or do not qualify under this law. The question of what qualifies as conversion is therefore unresolved, Barak said, so a non-Orthodox convert's declaration that he is Jewish cannot be termed blatantly false. This means the clerk must accept the convert's declaration that he is Jewish, even if the clerk believes non-Orthodox conversions do not meet the law's criteria.

Therefore, Barak continued, the court does not need to decide whether non-Orthodox conversions in fact qualify as conversions under this law. Similarly, the ruling does not constitute recognition of local non-Orthodox conversions for the purpose of securing citizenship under the Law of Return; that issue will be discussed in a separate case.

The court also based its ruling on its earlier ruling requiring the State to recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed overseas. That ruling said a convert must be registered as Jewish if the conversion was accepted by the community that performed it. Based on this principle, Barak wrote, any conversion recognized by any community, whether in Israel or abroad, should entitle the convert to be registered as a Jew in Israel.

The two dissenting justices, Izhak Englard and Yaacov Turkel, argued that whether the ministry registers a person as "Jewish" is not a mere matter of statistics; it implies that the person so recorded in fact meets the definition of a Jew, and is therefore a deeply controversial ideological decision of the sort in which the court should not be involved.

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