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Converting to Judaism ruling sparks political uproar in Israel

Ultra Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem 15 March 2006 [SAMUEL ARANDA/AFP/Getty Images]
Ultra Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem 15 March 2006 [SAMUEL ARANDA/AFP/Getty Images]

A decision issued by the Supreme Court to end the monopoly of ultra-Orthodox Jews to allow converting to Judaism sparked a political uproar in Israel, Anadolu Agency reported.

On Monday, the court ruled that the people who converted to Judaism in Israel through the reform and conservative movements must be recognised as Jews, and thus are entitled to obtain Israeli citizenship.

The court ruling stipulates the recognition of the Reformist and Conservative Judaism in favor of the Law of Return, which allows obtaining Israeli citizenship.

The decision comes after judicial deliberations that lasted nearly 15 years in the Supreme Court.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism are two liberal religious movements that have developed over the past two centuries.

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Orthodox Jews are strict about the issue of converting others to Judaism, as they consider that it is not a missionary religion, and that only those born to Jewish women are Jews.

Reform or Progressive Judaism calls for an increase in the openness and participation of Jews in civilisation and modernity, and has abandoned the concept that Jews form a separate nation, and instead began to view Judaism as a religious sect on the Christian model, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Regarding Conservative Judaism, the ministry says that it is a compromise between Reformists and the Orthodox.

In the past, Israel recognised Judaisation that took place only under the supervision of Conservatives and Reformists outside of Israel.

Inside Israel, the Orthodox had sole authorisation on approving conversion to Judaism, according to the official TV channel Kan.

While hardline Orthodox Israeli clerics criticised the Supreme Court's decision, secular and left-wing politicians welcomed it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not comment directly on the court decision, but a statement issued by his Likud party confirmed support for the Orthodox position.

The channel Kan Tuesday cited the Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau as saying in a statement that those who converted through the reform movement are not Jews, adding that the Supreme Court's decision will not change that fact.

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Also, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri considered the ruling as a major blow to the Jewish character of the state that destroys the status quo of religious affairs in his remarks made to the Jerusalem Post.

On the other hand, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who represents the center political stream of Israel, supported the court decision, welcoming the move he saw as recognition of diversity of the Jewish identity.

Yair Lapid, a center-left opposition leader and head of Yesh Atid party, expressed his support for the ruling, telling the Times of Israel newspaper: "Israel must enjoy full equality of rights for all Jewish currents "Orthodox, Reformism and Conservatism. "

For his part, Israeli affairs specialist Fayez Abbas said the court decision, which comes nearly three weeks before elections, will lead to a negative and violent reaction by hardline religious groups, which may pose obstacles to Netanyahu, who relies on Orthodox support to form a governmental coalition.

Abbas told Anadolu Agency: "If Netanyahu wants to get 61 seats that will allow him to form a government coalition, he needs the support of the two hardline religious parties [Shas and United Torah Judaism], which are expected to win at least 15 seats together."

He pointed out that "successive Israeli governments have been afraid of making a decision on converting to Judaism, as they do not want to lose the support of religious Jewish, and they do not want to lose the support of Reformists and Conservatives, since a large percentage of them are Jews of the United States."

The analyst also said that most of the Jews outside Israel belong to the reformist and conservative currents, while the majority of religious people in Israel belong to the ultra-Orthodox.

"It is not clear yet how many people will be affected by the court's decision, which is perceived as a challenge to the ultra-Orthodox control," Abbas said.

The Israeli affairs analyst expected that Israel would exploit this decision for political reasons, by applying the Law of Return to people who had converted to Judaism, even though they had no Jewish roots.

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"Of course, Israel exploits any loopholes in order to achieve political gains. If this storm passes, and if a law is not passed in the Knesset [Israeli parliament] that cancels the decision of the Supreme Court, large numbers of converts to Judaism will be attracted through Reformists and Conservatives."

But he added: "The ultra-Orthodox will not be silent on this decision easily.

"They will arm themselves with Netanyahu's dependence on them to form a government coalition, but if the center, secularists and the left are able to form a government in the next elections, then it will be difficult to cancel the court's decision," he said.

Abbas emphasised that it is not unlikely that Israeli Orthodox would organise violent demonstrations against the ruling.

He believes that what is happening today on the Israeli scene is evidence of "the fragility of society in Israel, and the deep and fundamental difference between the elements that constitute it."

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