It is often striking how American and Israeli culture wars follow each other. Both country’s political systems are paralyzed by divided societies. In the US it is an increasingly urban/suburban vs. rural clash, while in Israel the conflict pits Orthodox vs. secular Jews. This week the battle was intensified by a landmark decision of the Israeli Supreme Court recognizing conversions performed in Israel by the Reform and Conservative movements.
For decades, conversions performed by a “recognized community” in the diaspora, regardless of affiliation, must be accepted by the Israeli government for the purposes of citizenship under the Law of Return. However, in Israel, only conversions performed under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate are accepted. This led to the odd situation of people working towards a conversion in Israel with a Conservative or Reform rabbi, then taking a plane ride to a Jewish community outside the country for the formal conversion, and then finally returning to Israel to receive their citizenship.
The practical implication of the Supreme Court’s ruling is minimal. The liberal movements in Israel perform very few of them, and most people there who may want to convert are Israeli citizens already, such as the hundreds of the thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their descendants who are not Jewish according to halakha.
The real impact of this decision is in the precedent it sets. For the first time, Conservative and Reform rabbis now represent “recognized communities” according to the Israeli government. The court took pains to note that it was not wading into religious matters, and the decision does not require the Chief Rabbinate to acknowledge these converts as Jews. And yet, one can envision a future when the liberal movements demand, and receive, even more official recognition in other areas.
For right now, the decision has thrown a wrench into the upcoming Israeli elections. Orthodox parties have condemned the ruling and vowed to condition their participation in a coalition on a law that would overturn it. On the other side of the spectrum, the head of the executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, is slated to enter the next Knesset as a member of the Labor Party.
The increasingly bitter religious/secular divide is the major cause of Israel’s political instability. Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the secular Yisrael Beiteinu Party, refuses to sit in a coalition with Likud because of the presence of Orthodox parties even though on many other issues he aligns very closely with Netanyahu’s party. Without his obstinacy, Israel would have been able to avoid the last 3 elections in the past 18 months.
Just as in America, the role of the Supreme Court in Israel’s culture wars is deeply controversial. In the US, the court in various periods has made both liberal and conservative decisions with long lasting effects. In Israel, the court has mostly been a liberal institution owning to the way judges are selected. In the US, presidents, with the consent of the Senate, make the choice, while in Israel a committee does so.
This week’s decision will certainly not end the controversy over conversions in Israel, but it does move the debate forward. It is a great win for the Reform and Conservative movements, who have been fighting for religious freedom in Israel for decades and who now have added leverage against the ultra-Orthodox establishment. We are one step closer to an Israel where each person can decide how they want to express their tradition.