It has been an historic week, but maybe not for the reasons that pop into your head first. Yes, vaccine doses are on the rise and infection levels are declining. It has been nearly a year since we went into our first pandemic lockdown. A new vaccine was approved for emergency distribution. This is all true and important, but quietly, another historic event happened this week, in Israel.
In what some consider a bombshell decision, the Israeli high court ruled on Monday that reform and conservative conversions, in Israel, will be recognized for citizenship purposes. Until Monday, if you lived in Israel and were not Jewish, if you wanted to become a citizen, only an Orthodox conversion to Judaism was valid for citizenship. Interestingly, outside of Israel, reform and conservative conversions have been recognized for citizenship since the founding of the state. The Israeli Law of Return stipulates anyone wanting to make Aliyah, or move to Israel and be a citizen, with a Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse, may automatically claim citizenship.
This new recognition within Israel aligns what has always been allowed outside the country with what happens internally. The Supreme Court ruling was 15 years in the making when at least a dozen people, in 2005, petitioned for citizenship, who had not had Orthodox conversions, in Israel. The decision on Monday was a decisive 8-1 vote of the court giving significant support to an important and growing pluralistic religious community.
Why does this matter? The question of “who is a Jew?” has been one that has challenged us as a people. Some may see a growing divide between those living in the diaspora and those living in Israel. This vote reaffirms that Israel is a homeland to all Jews, regardless of religious observance or affiliation. With a rising tide of antisemitism this reaffirmation is meaningful and important. As a Jewish state, this verdict reinforces the notion that Israel guarantees religious freedom of expression to all people and that the country absolutely honors diversity of Jewish practice and possibility.
In the words of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope),
“As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope - the two-thousand-year-old hope - will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
This historic decision beautifully illuminates the words and meaning of our anthem.