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.
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