Judicial Conversion in Israel – Legal Information
The Issue of Conversion in the State of Israel’s Legislation
The process of judicial conversion allows a person belonging to another religion to convert to Judaism. The Law of Return of 1950 defines a Jew as someone who is born of a Jewish mother or who converted, and does not belong to another religion, and thus is able to make Aliyah (immigrate) to Israel. Despite the great importance of the topic of conversion, even to this day this area has not been fully or comprehensively settled through the law. The activity of the state conversion system and the religious courts designated for conversion has been regulated through a number of government decisions, according to which the authority to convert is given to the state orthodox conversion system alone.
Our law office specializes in matters of Aliyah and obtaining official status in Israel. In the past we wrote on the subject of the right to immigrate to Israel after conversion. As mentioned, the State of Israel and immigration authorities do not want the process of Aliyah after changing religion to Judaism to be simple and easy. If anyone in the world could have the ability to be approved based on conversion to Judaism, and thus immigrate to Israel, there is a concern that many will claim that they have converted, only so that they can receive Israeli citizenship.
The information in this article, by Advocate Joshua Pex, is a simplification of a complicated legal issue that is laden with many various elements. Nevertheless, in this article we will explain the legal background of the law of conversion in the Israeli justice system, as well as the recent developments that are important to know about.
The Judicial Conversion Process in the State of Israel
As stated above, conversion procedures and legal status in Israel rely less on regulation in the law and more on government decisions. Mainly, government decisions no. 3155 (2/ע) on the date of 14.2.2008 and no. 3613 on the date of 4.7.1998.
The Supreme Court warned about the absence of laws in the area of conversion in a number of decisions, among them the Supreme Court decision 7625/06 Martina Ragchova v. Ministry of Interior, which was given on the date of 31.3.2016 and dealt with the question of whether or not to recognize a private orthodox conversion that is not within the confines of the state conversion process for the purposes of the Law of Return, that is, for the purposes of receiving Aliyah and citizenship in the State of Israel.
This revolutionary decision by the Supreme Court established that petitioners who passed through a conversion process in the private beit din of Rabbi Karelitz—in Bnei Brak—would be recognized as Jews as concerns the Law of Return. The decision opened the door to the submission of additional petitions to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions for the purposes of the Law of Return.
Response to the Supreme Court Decision on Ragchova – Memorandum of State Conversion Law
Supreme Court decision on Ragchova created an upheaval among many groups, chief among them the members of the ultra-orthodox factions in the Kenesset, who strongly opposed the recognition of a conversion that is not orthodox from the State. In response to the Supreme Court decision on Ragchova, in May 2017 the members of the ultra-orthodox factions presented a memorandum to the state conversion law before the Ministerial Committee of Legislation. The goal of the suggested law was to bypass the ruling that the Supreme Court case of Ragchova established and strengthen the standing of the state religious courts of conversion as the only entities allowed to perform legally recognized conversions in Israel.
On 25 June 2017 the Ministerial Committee of Legislation approved the memorandum; the decision was received almost unanimously – the only one who objected was Sofa Landver, who filed an appeal against the decision of the Ministerial Committee, thus halting the progress of the legislation. In October of 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Moshe Nissim to head the Ministerial Committee which would give its recommendations and conclusions regarding the issue of conversion.
The Nissim Committee – Conclusions and Results
Mr. Moshe Nissim submitted a detailed report that examined the issue of conversion in depth, and presented a “friendly” approach to those seeking to convert.
In consideration of the Nissim Committee’s recommendations, a new state conversion law bill was introduced on 5 October 2018, initiated by Member of Knesset Yehuda Glick. Up until the date this article was written, the bill has still not been decided on, and it ignited great opposition from the ultra-orthodox political parties, because of the lenient approach it introduces.
The lenient approach, amongst other things, is expressed in section 22 of the proposal, in which it is suggested that instructions about conversion of foreign nationals be solidified. In the explanation of the conversion law bill it states that:
These instructions are intended to strike a balance between the necessity of the State to ensure that the conversion procedures will not be abused in order to obtain legal status in Israel or financial benefits, and between the necessity to respond to those who sincerely wish to join the Jewish people. These instructions are intended to make it easier to receive decisions concerning foreign nationals.
The condition for the conversion of a foreign national will be receiving approval from the committee of two members which appoints a conversion judge that serves in the highest position, and a representative from the Minister of Interior’s office. The rest of the instructions that were intended, as stated, to prevent an abuse of conversion proceedings will be established with regulations that will be implemented by the Minister of Interior in consultation with the Minister.
Jewish Community Recognized for the Purpose of Conversion
This lenient approach is also expressed in section 31, in which it is suggested that instructions concerning the recognition of converts who went through the process abroad be solidified. The explanation says:
This article in effect safeguards the ruling of Judge Barak Supreme Court 2597/99 Toshbaim vs. Minister of the Interior, P.D. (6) 721. This ruling says that a conversion that takes place in a recognized Jewish community abroad will be recognized for the purposes of the Law of Return. In accordance with this ruling the State also has the right to establish rules and conditions which will prevent misuse of conversion for the sake of acquiring economic rights or for any other reason apart from joining the Jewish people. In accordance with what was stated above, rules have indeed been established by the Ministry of Interior. Therefore, it is advised to authorize the Minister of Interior, in consultation with the Minister, to establish regulations, as already stated.
In defining the concept of a “recognized Jewish community” it says that this refers to an established and active community, possessing a common and well-known Jewish identity, possessing set frameworks of how the community operates and belonging to one of the streams of Judaism that is recognized by the global Jewish population. This definition includes the Reform and Conservative Jewish communities. Therefore, the meaning of this legal section is that conversions that take place in Reform or Conservative communities abroad will be recognized for the purposes of the Law of Return and for the purposes of being registered as a Jew in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On the other hand, these conversions will not be recognized for the purposes of matrimony within Israel or for receiving religious services as a Jew in Israel.
Implementation of Conclusions Reached by Nissim Committee and Supreme Court Decision on Ragchova—Current Legal Situation
In conclusion, in spite of the Supreme Court’s decision on Ragchova and the parliamentary efforts to further the issue, the Knesset has not yet approved the state conversion bill that was presented by Member of Knesset Yehuda Glick. As of today, we find ourselves in the interim period of Supreme Court decision on Ragchova and the report from the Nissim Committee.
The tendency in the case law is to make things easier for the converts while at the same time being strict that those going through a legal conversion are not abusing the system in order to obtain status in Israel or financial benefits. Therefore, as long as the Knesset does not legislate the state conversion law, the courts will examine each specific request in accordance with Supreme Court decision on Ragchova. For example, Supreme Court 4870/17 Eleonora Ashtifani vs. Ministry of Interior, in which the convert—who converted through a private orthodox beit din—petitioned to be recognized as eligible for the Law of Return by virtue of her conversion. In his decision, the honorable Judge Vogelman noted:
It should be stated immediately that we did not find any grounds to prevent us ruling on the petition placed before us. The fundamental decision concerning the orthodox conversions that are not performed through the state conversion procedure was given in the case of Ragchova more than two years ago. The respondents are obligated to act in accordance with this decision, regardless of future legislative procedures, and in petitions concerning conversions performed within the Conservative and Reform movements.
Other conversion related verdicts by Israeli courts
An additional example of the implementation of the Ragchova decision can be seen in Supreme Court 4535/11 McLaren vs. Ministry of Interior (26.9.2016) in which it was decided that a lawful stay in Israel during the time of the conversion allows for the recognition of the conversion, even if it is not within the bounds of the state conversion system.
In the ruling on motion 65786-03-17 Anonymous vs. Ministry of Interior et al., which was given on 20 August 2018, the request of a female converting was decided upon—an Israeli citizen who passed through the conversion process of the organization “Giyur KeHalacha,” a private beit din in Israel—to have her religion registered as Jewish in the population registry (the honorable court was not requested to recognize the conversion for purposes of the Law of Return). The court accepted the request of the woman converting and issued a declarative ruling that in light of the (private) conversion process that the petitioner passed through, she is a Jew for the purposes of registration with the population registry.
Nevertheless, conversion procedures through private religious courts in Israel – Reform or Conservative – are currently not recognized in an blanket manner for the purposes of the Law of Return, and every request is examined, and it will be this way until the issues of conversion are settled in a comprehensive manner and fully regulated legislatively.
Contact Lawyers for Immigration to Israel
Our office specializes in representation of clients before the Ministry of Interior for immigration to Israel, Aliyah, and obtaining legal status for foreign nationals. If you have any doubt that Israeli authorities will recognize your conversion, or that of a relative or family member, contact us. Set up a meeting with a lawyer in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem to receive help concerning legal conversion, state conversion, and other immigration issues.