Israeli state validates 40,000 conversions

By Nathan Jeffay, May 10, 2012

Israel's High Court has affirmed the validity of 40,000 conversions, called in to doubt when the so-called conversion crisis started four years ago.

In 2008, a panel of judges in Israel's Supreme Rabbinical Court raised a question mark over all conversions performed in the previous decade by the state's conversion courts. Ever since, some converts have been refused marriage licences by rabbinate marriage registrars who consider them non-Jewish.

The High Court, in its new ruling, does not stop at affirming that all converts are Jewish - it harangues the Supreme Rabbinical Court for claiming otherwise. It "rode roughshod over basic procedural rules and the principles of natural justice", wrote justice Dorit Beinisch in her verdict, adding that it "demonstrated contempt" for the conversion system and "did a shocking injustice" to the converts who brought the issue to her court.

In theory, this draws to a close the four-year-long saga that saw Israelis who had lived in the belief that they were Jewish having everything thrown in to the air. The state bestows the conversions - the Conversion Authority operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister's Office - and its supreme legal authority has stated loudly and clearly that they are kosher.

But all is not as simple as it would seem. While it is a state body that is in charge of conversion, in the life of the average convert, the most important thing they will do with their conversion certificate is take it to their local rabbinate. If they or their children want to get married, they need to go there and show that they are Jewish before they receive approval to wed. But even after the latest ruling, converts will still be at the mercy of these officials.

The petitioners in the latest High Court ruling had asked for judges to rule that the rabbinate, not only the state, will respect all conversions. But they stopped short of doing that.

Converts know how vulnerable they are in the hands of the rabbinate. Registrars in some cities refuse point blank to marry converts; others make their own assessments of whether they think that they were devout at the time of conversion and make their decision accordingly. This situation continues despite promises by the rabbinate a year ago that it would stop, and that all converts would be able to get married.

Given that many converts lack trust in the rabbinate to guarantee that they will be able to marry as Jews, they had been putting faith in the state to force its hand. This would not, they reasoned, have been a case of the state overstepping its authority, but simply demanding that the rabbinate respects its own authority - the very conversion certificates that are called into question were issued under the supervision of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi's office.

Converts are happy to hear that the state is on their side, but increasingly feel like piggy in the middle between two separate but related systems.

Last updated: 4:20pm, May 10 2012