David Ellenson, a past director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, broke down the changing thoughts on who is considered “a Jew” by the state of Israel. On Thursday, Dec. 2, in a Zoom event titled “Who is a Convert? The Law of Return and the Legality of Reform and Conservative Conversions in Israel,” Ellenson took attendees through 70 years of Israeli policy, with the most recent update being from this year.
He started the event with the original 1950 “Law of Return,” which stated that Israel is “the national state of the Jewish people and welcomes all Jews to citizenship within its borders,” according to a document shared with attendees. He clarified that personal matters—like marriage or burial—were not addressed by this law; those were still under the jurisdiction of the Rabbinate, the religious council that oversees Israeli affairs. This law only determined the citizenship rights of Jewish people. However, this law was vague and didn’t specify parameters of Judaism; it didn’t specify who was considered Jewish.
This law has since been specified over a myriad of court cases, Ellenson highlighted in his talk. The definition of a Jewish person was broadened in 1970, with citizens being able to be labeled ethnically Jewish but religiously atheist. This result comes in the case of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. Judaism is traditionally considered to be passed down from the mother. If you’re born from a Jewish woman, then you’re Jewish; if you’re born from a non-Jewish mother, you’re not, regardless of paternal status. This court case goes against that idea though. According to the document, “The Court, stated that in the absence of a legislative definition of “Jew” in the Law of Return, a person could be registered as Jewish in the Population Registry if she or he self-defined as Jewish, even if traditional Jewish law did not accord the individual Jewish status.”
Following this, the Law of Return was updated in 1970 to say, “For the purposes of this Law, ‘Jew’ means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.” This update would soon be challenged, as there are many denominations to Judaism. It was ruled in the 1980s that regardless of denomination—Reform, Conservative or Orthodox—a person whose conversion (outside of Israel) was performed “within a Jewish community” was to be considered a Jew. However, Ellenson pointed out that this failed to address concerns about the Law of Return or the Population Registry (of the state of Israel).
The rules in Israel remained more technical than those for converts outside of Israel. “The Ministry maintained that for a change of religion to have legal effect, it had to be registered by the head of the ‘Religious Community’ in Israel. As the head of the Jewish religious community in Israel was the Chief Rabbinate, a person seeking to change his/her religion in Israel must bring certification from the Chief Rabbinate,” reads Ellenson’s document, about a 1993 case. The section on this case, Eliane Pesaro (Goldstein) v. Ministry of the Interior (1993), ends with a quote from one of the Supreme Court judges that made this ruling: “We are not determining that Reform conversion be recognized for the Law of Return and the Population Registry. Therefore, we are not ordering the respondents to accept the petitioner as a Jew for the Law of Return, and we are not ordering that she be registered as Jewish in the Population Registry.” In 2002, the Court ruled that Reform and Conservative converts, regardless of conversion location, will be allowed to be labeled as Jewish in the Population Registry, but did not address the Law of Return.
In 2016, the Law of Return was finally addressed in regards to converts. All Orthodox converts, regardless of conversion location, were eligible for citizenship in the Law of Return. This decision did not expand to Reform or Conservative Jewish converts. Fifteen years later, in 2021, the status of Reform and Conservative Jewish converts would be accepted by the Supreme Court. President Hayut, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel, stated, “Seeing as under all accounts these congregations are ‘recognized Jewish communities’ and so long as the legislators have not legislated differently, there are no grounds not to recognize converts, like the petitioners, who converted in these congregations in Israel, as Jews for the purpose of the Law of Return,” according to Ellenson’s document.
After 70 years, who gets to be treated as Jewish under Israeli law? Currently, the definition expands to all Jewish converts regardless of denomination or conversion location as well as people who are Jewish by birth. As evidenced by the very busy chat in the Zoom call, there are still questions and technicalities to be considered. Updates are likely to come later as we all still struggle to answer that lifelong question: who is a Jew?