Viewing cable 05TELAVIV2265

05TELAVIV22652005-04-12 13:19:00 2011-08-30 01:44:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Tel Aviv
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 TEL AVIV 002265 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/12/2015 
Classified By: Political Counselor Norman Olsen for reasons 1.4 b,d 
¶1.  (C) Summary: The Supreme Court further chipped away at 
the Orthodox rabbinate's monopoly over conversions to Judaism 
in its March 31 ruling that the GOI must recognize the 
non-Orthodox conversions of 15 non-citizen legal residents of 
Israel that were begun in Israel but formalized abroad, and 
grant the 15 converts Israeli citizenship.  An Interior 
Ministry advisor told poloff April 12 that the court ruling 
will require the GOI to henceforth recognize conversions that 
are begun in Israel and completed abroad for the purpose of 
conferring citizenship and that the Interior and Justice 
ministries are working on implementing regulations.  Reform 
movement attorney Rabbi Uri Regev noted that there was 
"nothing earthshaking about the decision" since the court did 
not address the broader issue of whether the GOI must 
recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed wholly in 
Israel.  He noted that the Knesset's continuing failure to 
legislate on which conversions are legitimate for the 
purposes of immigration has forced a string of Supreme Court 
decisions that still leave open the ultimate question: should 
the Orthodox rabbinate have exclusive control over 
conversions conducted entirely within Israel.  Regev said 
that his organization is already preparing a case for the 
Supreme Court to put this issue to rest. 
¶2.  (C)  Summary cont'd: The court's decision was praised by 
the reform and conservative Jewish communities as well as by 
Interior Minister Ophir Pines, who said he would begin 
preparations to implement the ruling to cover all conversions 
completed abroad regardless of whether preparations took 
place in Israel.  The Orthodox rabbinate rejected the 
decision, and religious party Knesset members at a 
poorly-attended special Knesset session April 6 called for 
legislation to circumvent the ruling.  Two religious parties 
in the coalition are demanding that Prime Minister Sharon 
reject the ruling.  End summary. 
Israeli Residents Undergoing Non-Orthodox 
Conversions Abroad Entitled to Citizenship 
¶3.  (U) The Supreme Court ruled March 31 that persons 
resident in but not citizens of Israel who undergo 
non-Orthodox (reform or conservative) conversions begun in 
Israel but formalized in Jewish communities abroad, are 
entitled to become Israeli citizens pursuant to Israel's Law 
of Return.  The original 1950 Law of Return afforded 
immigration rights to all Jews, but did not define who is a 
Jew.  A 1970 amendment defined a Jew as being "any person 
born of a Jewish mother or who has converted to Judaism."  It 
did not, however, indicate what types of conversions are 
acceptable.  (Note: The 1970 amendment also vested 
immigration rights -- but not status as a Jew for all 
purposes, civil and religious -- in "a child and a grandchild 
of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew 
and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person 
who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion." 
 End note.) 
¶4.  (SBU) Rabbi Uri Regev, an attorney with the Israel 
Religious Action Center (IRAC), which represented the 15 
petitioners in this case, told poloff April 6 that the 
petitioners are all legal residents but not citizens of 
Israel who each had undergone in Israel "an intensive course 
of study and active involvement in Jewish life" pursuant to 
reform or conservative Jewish conversion procedures that 
lasted about one year.  The petitioners had each then 
traveled abroad for various lengths of time (some for only a 
day or so) to undergo the actual conversions in reform or 
conservative communities.  Each conversion required answering 
a serious of questions posed by either a reform or 
conservative rabbi, respectively.  All of the arrangements 
were made by the petitioners' reform or conservative 
communities, respectively, in Israel.  Upon satisfactorily 
responding to the rabbis' questions, the petitioners received 
formal reform or conservative certificates and returned to 
¶5.  (SBU) In its ruling, the court rejected the GOI's 
argument that these conversions are actually conversions 
conducted in Israel, Regev explained, noting that the actual 
conversion -- not the conversion preparation -- took place 
abroad.  Accordingly, the court determined that these 
conversions met the terms of its 1989 decision that required 
the GOI to recognize reform and conservative conversions 
performed abroad for the purposes of immigration and 
citizenship.  Regev said the court also rejected the GOI's 
requirement that converts live in the converting Jewish 
community abroad for a year before being entitled to 
immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.  Regev said that 
in the March 31 decision, the court did not establish 
criteria for overseas conversions, or address the length of 
time a person must remain overseas for the conversion.  The 
court did state, however, that the converting community 
abroad should be part of a recognized mainstream Jewish 
community -- orthodox, conservative, or reform, Regev noted. 
He added that in its decision, the court advised the Knesset 
to legislate guidelines for determining the legitimacy of 
communities to avoid fraudulent conversions. 
Numbers Affected Unknown 
¶6.  (C) Regev could not estimate how many people would take 
advantage of the March 31 ruling.  Interior Minister advisor 
Sharon Rosenberg, however, estimated to poloff April 7 that 
"quite a few people" would take advantage of the ruling. 
Regev downplayed the Orthodox Jewish establishment's concern 
that the ruling would facilitate mass conversions of 
non-Jewish temporary residents of Israel, such as foreign 
workers, who could then seek citizenship rights.  The reform 
and conservative communities, Regev asserted, would not allow 
for fraudulent conversions.  Regev noted that in this case, 
the GOI did not claim that the petitioners' conversions were 
fraudulent.  He also highlighted as a check on possible abuse 
the court's recommendation that the Knesset develop 
guidelines to determine whether the Jewish communities abroad 
that perform the actual conversions are legitimate 
"mainstream" Jewish communities.  Some form of regulatory 
framework would prevent abuse of the ruling by individuals 
who are not serious about converting to Judaism, Regev added. 
¶7.  (C) Despite Interior Minister Pines' public announcement 
that he supports the court ruling and would implement it, 
both for the 15 petitioners and more broadly, Regev expressed 
skepticism that the ruling would be implemented quickly, 
given the political controversy surrounding this issue. 
Interior Ministry attorney-advisor Malka Kogan (protect) told 
poloff April 12 that the MOI and the Ministry of Justice will 
together work on implementing regulations, and noted that all 
applicants who converted in processes like those used by the 
15 petitioners would still need to apply and qualify 
individually for immigration rights and citizenship pursuant 
to the Law of Return.  Therefore, while the MOI would follow 
the court's conversion ruling, it would apply that ruling on 
a case-by-case basis, she explained. 
Court Continues to Fill Legislative Gap 
¶8.  (C) Regev highlighted that the Supreme Court's March 31 
ruling is the latest in a string of rulings that have 
whittled away at the GOI's position that the Chief Orthodox 
Rabbinate should remain the sole authority on conversions. 
Regev explained, however, that none of the rulings, including 
that of March 31, have decided the issue of whether the GOI 
must recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed entirely in 
Israel.  Regev explained that in a 1995 ruling, the Supreme 
Court determined that a British mandate-era conversion 
ordinance giving sole authority over conversions to the Chief 
Orthodox Rabbinate applied only in cases of personal status 
such as marriage and divorce, and not with regard to civil 
status cases such as citizenship.  The 1995 ruling stated 
that only the Knesset could legislate what sort of 
conversions are valid for citizenship and registration 
purposes, Regev said. 
¶9.  (C) In the 1995 ruling, the court did not recognize 
Israeli reform and conservative conversions, but rather, 
according to Regev, performed "acrobatics" in declaring what 
the GOI cannot do.  He noted that IRAC is already preparing a 
petition to compel the Supreme Court to rule whether the GOI 
must recognize for citizenship purposes reform and 
conservative conversions conducted and completed entirely in 
Orthodox Afraid of Easy Conversions 
¶10.  (SBU) The Orthodox Jewish establishment has uniformly 
rejected the Supreme Court's decision to legitimize what the 
Orthodox refer to as "leaping conversions."  (The term 
derives from the Orthodox depiction of a process in which 
non-Jewish residents in Israel can pursue reform or 
conservative conversion programs in Israel and then "leap" to 
another country merely to obtain a conversion certificate.) 
Ultra-Orthodox Shas party leader Eli Yishai termed the 
decision an "explosives belt that has brought about a suicide 
attack against the Jewish people."  Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi 
Yona Metzger also rejected the ruling, saying that "it is 
hard for us to recognize those who turned into Jews in a 
leap, just as it is difficult to recognize a doctor who 
became a doctor in just one day." 
¶11.  (C) Shas MK Yitzhak Cohen complained to poloff April 6 
that the court ruling will allow non-Jewish Israeli residents 
to convert simply by flying to Cyprus and securing a 
conversion certificate.  (Note: Cohen mentioned Cyprus 
because many Israelis already go there for civil marriages. 
Some 300,000 of the one million people who immigrated from 
the former Soviet republics in the 1990s, for example, are 
not considered Jewish by the Orthodox Rabbinate, although 
they lawfully immigrated to Israel and received Israeli 
citizenship, many as dependents of immigrating Jews, under 
the Law of Return.  They therefore cannot be married, 
divorced, or buried pursuant to Jewish religious law, which 
governs those functions for all Jewish citizens of Israel. 
Many fly to nearby Cyprus to get married in civil ceremonies, 
which the GOI recognizes only if conducted outside of Israel. 
 End Note.)  Cohen asserted that only the Orthodox 
establishment should have control over conversions.  Hasidic 
MKs Moshe Gafni of the Degel Hatorah party and Meir Porush of 
the Agudat Israel party are reportedly demanding that the GOI 
refuse to implement the court's ruling and that it support 
legislation that prevents the Supreme Court from ruling on 
matters of Jewish religious law.  They are said to base the 
demand on the agreement under which their parties joined the 
Sharon government, and in which they claim Sharon promises to 
honor the status quo arrangement with regard to religious 
¶12.  (C) IRAC attorney Kariv asserted that most Israelis 
today are "fed up" with the Orthodox monopoly over Judaism, 
and that they want to "express their identity in many ways." 
He speculated that it would be hard for the Orthodox 
community and its Knesset representatives to secure 
legislation that would vest full control over all conversions 
conducted in Israel in the Chief Orthodox Rabbinate.  The 
Shas party called a special Knesset session April 6 to debate 
the ruling, but only some 20 of the 120 MKs reportedly showed 
up for the session.  Comment: The Knesset is unlikely to take 
up this matter further until it returns from recess on May 
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