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NewsThe next big religion and state issues the country will face -...

The next big religion and state issues the country will face – analysis

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The decision by the High Court of Justice last week allowing non-Israeli nationals who convert through the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements to get Israeli citizenship resolved a clash over religion that had been five decades in the making.In the aftermath of this decision, which will itself reverberate for years, what will be the next major matters of religion and state that will come to public attention in the near future?Perhaps the biggest outstanding religion-and-state issue is the lack of civil marriage in Israel. Civil marriages performed outside of Israel are subsequently recognized and registered by the Interior Ministry.But the tens if not hundreds of thousands of Israelis who cannot or do not want to marry through the Chief Rabbinate currently have no way of getting married in their homeland.Appeals to the High Court to rectify this situation have failed, since the law states explicitly that marriage must be conducted through the established religious institutions of the different faith groups in Israel.The current COVID-19 pandemic has created new pressure over this issue, however, since the approximately nine thousand couples who usually marry abroad in civil ceremonies every year have not been able to do so due to travel restrictions imposed as a result of the health crisis. ONE RECENT development has the potential to dramatically change this situation, however. Last year, five couples who never left the borders of the State of Israel got married in an online civil ceremony under the auspices of the American State of Utah.

Since this marriage is legally valid in Utah and the rest of the US, the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry is required by law to recognize and register these marriages.In total, some 150 couples have now married in this manner, although the majority have not yet registered at the ministry since Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said he had ordered the registration of such couples to be suspended pending a ministry examination of the issue.Several couples who were blocked from registering their marriage by Deri’s order have now filed a petition against him in the Lod District Court, which on Sunday gave the state 30 days to reply to the suit.Attorney Vlad Finkelshtein, who represents the couples, says he believes the court will rule that the Population Authority must register the marriages since the state is required by international conventions to recognize civil marriage certificates, and other documentation, if performed legally by another country.Such a development would constitute a de facto civil marriage option in Israel, even if it would not totally fulfill the goals of activists who want the state itself to provide such an option. ASIDE FROM civil marriage, the other major religion-and-state issue which could come back into the public forum is that of prayer rights at the Western Wall.In 2016, the government passed a cabinet resolution approving the establishment of a state-recognized prayer site for non-Orthodox prayer at the southern end of the Western Wall, fulfilling the demands of the Women of the Wall organization along with the Reform and Masorti movements for equal access to the holy site.The ultra-Orthodox political parties, which initially allowed the deal to pass, backtracked on their decision to allow the resolution to be implemented and pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to indefinitely suspend the agreement in 2017.The Women of the Wall and the non-Orthodox movements then appealed to the High Court, demanding either that it instruct the government to implement the cabinet resolution or to provide it with a prayer space in the main Western Wall plaza.The state initially requested that the court hold off on any decision while it sought to physically upgrade the informal non-Orthodox prayer space at the southern end of the Western Wall, but pressure from ultra-Orthodox and hardline religious-Zionist politicians has stymied those efforts as well.A new hearing on the matter in the High Court is scheduled for October this year. While it seems unlikely that the court would go so far as to order that a non-Orthodox prayer section be created at the main Western Wall plaza due to the intense sensitivities surrounding the site, it could increase pressure on the government to fulfill its 2016 resolution, or at least upgrade the current site. BESIDES CIVIL marriage and the Western Wall, there are two other important issues connected to conversion that will likely come before the High Court soon.Attorney Nicole Maor of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, notes that in 2003 it filed a petition demanding that a couple wishing to adopt a non-Jewish child in Israel be allowed to convert that child through the Reform or Masorti movement’s conversion programs.Currently, if a Jewish couple seeks to adopt a child who is not Jewish, the Child Services Authority of the Labor and Welfare Ministry requires that they convert the child to Judaism for the societal well-being of the child.That conversion must be done through the State Conversion Authority, which is under the authority of the Prime Minister’s Office but subject to the rules of the Chief Rabbinate and the Orthodox religious establishment.The Child Services Authority therefore requires that a couple get approval from the State Conversion Authority to adopt a child who needs Jewish conversion – but only gives such approval to Orthodox, religiously observant couples, Maor said.IRAC’s petition demands that the Child Services Authority also allow the conversion authorities of the Reform and Masorti movement to issue permission for such adoptions. ANOTHER PETITION filed by IRAC in 2009 demands that the state pay for Brit Milah [circumcision] ceremonies for male Reform and Masorti converts, as it does for converts through the State Conversion Authority.In 2011, the High Court decided that final rulings on both these decisions must wait until the broader issue of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel is resolved.Since the court issued a ruling on that issue last week, Maor says IRAC is poised to file a request to the High Court this week asking that it now rule on the two outstanding petitions.It is unclear yet whether further court hearings will be required on those petitions.IRAC director Rabbi Noa Sattath said that another major issue her organization will be working on is that of the rights of so-called emerging communities.These communities are located mainly in Africa and Latin America and are either comprised of groups who have undergone mass conversion such as the Abayudaya community in Uganda, similar groups of mass converts in Latin America, or other groups claiming affinity to or descent from the Jewish people.The Interior Ministry has said, however, that communities established by converts are not eligible for recognition by the Jewish Agency or for citizenship in Israel, something IRAC intends to challenge.The High Court recently declined to rule on the substantive issue of the aliyah (immigration) rights of the Abayudaya community, although saying that there would eventually be no alternative but to rule on the issue.

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