Israel Religious Action Center
of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism
Who is a Jew

כי אל אשר תלכי אלך ובאשר תליני אלין עמך עמי ואל היך אל הי
רות פרק א פסוק טז
In Israel today, there a number of different contexts for determining Jewish identity – those determined by the state for purposes of immigration, and those determined by the Orthodox Rabbinate, which controls the assignment of Jewish status to those living in Israel.

The question of “Who is a Jew?” has been answered many ways throughout history. In biblical history, Jewish identity was determined through the father. Numerous Israelites and Kings married non-Jewish women and their children together were considered to be Jewish. These women “converted” through marriage because they joined the clan, the people, and the religion. This practice was altered during the advent of the Rabbinic Period and continues today, where according to Halacha, traditional Jewish law, a Jew is a person who is born to a Jewish mother, regardless of faith or religious practice.1 A more liberal interpretation of the law was accepted by the Reform Movement in America in 1983; it also includes a person born to a Jewish father, if he or she is raised in Jewish home.2 Confronted by the growing realities of intermarriage in America, this inclusion of patrilineal descent was adopted in an understanding that only one parent who chooses to raise a child in a Jewish home is needed for that child to be considered Jewish.

Every Jewish movement in the world performs conversions, using different standards and having different expectations of how a convert should fulfill his or her commitment to leading a Jewish life after the conversion process. Orthodox Jews only consider those who have converted under Orthodox auspices to be Jewish, whereas Reform Judaism accepts the legitimacy of clergy from all other movements, and therefore their conversions as well. This difference in definitions means that there are people whose Jewish identity is called into question depending on the religious authority.

For the purposes of status in Israel, who is a recognized as a Jew?
In order to be assigned status as a Jew (and with it, the rights associated), one must satisfy the Orthodox criteria, meaning either one is born to a Jewish mother, or has converted under Orthodox auspices according to a strict interpretation of the Halacha by the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Therefore, only converts accepted by the Orthodox rabbinic authorities in Israel are recognized as Jewish in Israel. Even the Orthodox movements in America must be on the approved list by the Chief Rabbi of Israel in order for the conversion to stand. This means that Jews who converted under any non-Orthodox movement, even if they were active members in their Jewish communities, and raised their children in a Jewish home, would not be considered as Jews in Israel. However, the State will recognize Jewish converts from abroad for the purposes of immigration to Israel, even though they are not considered Jews by the Rabbinate.

For the purposes of citizenship, who is recognized as a Jew?
The Law of Return was established in 1950, so that “the State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles.”3 Indeed, this was the case as Jews from all over the world immigrated to Israel to begin a new life. At its most basic level, the Law of Return permits an immigrant to gain citizenship rights if he or she has one Jewish grandparent who does not identify with a religion other than Judaism.4 Over the years, the specifications of the Law of Return have been defined by Supreme Court rulings.

The late 1980s saw the beginning of waves of immigration from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia which created new controversy regarding the Law of Return.5 Since 1989, more than one million immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who qualified under the law of return, approx. 30% of these new Israeli citizens are not Halachic Jews and thus are not recognized as Jewish by the Rabbinate.

While Jews who converted under non-Orthodox auspices are not recognized as Jewish by the Rabbinate, and thereby do not receive the rights and service accorded to Halachic Jews in Israel, many cases have been brought before the Supreme Court in order to guarantee non-Orthodox converts the right to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Until the 1980s, the question of whether or not a convert seeking citizenship converted under Orthodox auspices was not asked.

In the mid-1980s, a Reform convert in Israel wanted status and went to the Ministry of Interior, then in the hands of Shas (a religious party), asking for recognition. Shas petitioned the High Court of Justice in order to prevent this convert from being recognized as Jewish by the State. In 1989, the Court, in a precedent-setting case, ordered that Jews converted in any conversion outside of Israel must be recognized as Jews for the purpose of immigration. The Supreme Court claimed that there was no basis for discrimination against Jews converted by non-Orthodox clergy for the purpose of citizenship and registration as Jews. This leads to a conflict, whereby the rights in Israel are given according to the recognition by the Rabbinate and not according to citizenship status. IRAC does not demand that the Orthodox recognize non-Orthodox conversions; we call on the State to give full validity and recognition to such conversions.

In 1995, IRAC won a precedent-setting case whereby the Supreme Court recognized a non-Orthodox conversion performed in Israel for the purpose of registration as a Jew. Hava Goldstein, a Brazilian native, came to Israel in 1990 and converted to Judaism through the Reform Movement in Israel. When Goldstein applied for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and attempted to register as a Jew with the Ministry of Interior, she could not produce a conversion certificate from the Rabbinate and was therefore denied. The Court’s ruled that the Ministry of Interior’s request for an Orthodox conversion certificate had no basis in Israeli law; within six months Goldstein was to be registered as a Jew.6

The issue of recognition still remains for those who wish to convert in Israel. However, in 2005, IRAC won a Supreme Court case which states that “leaping conversions” are acceptable. A person who wishes to study for conversion in Israel, may do so, and complete the conversion process abroad. When the person returns to Israel, they may apply for citizenship and be registered as a Jew. Again, these converts will not be considered as Jewish by the Rabbinate.

In 2008, there continues to be an on-going controversy regarding the issue of conversion between the religious parties, the secular public, and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

The discrepancy between being recognized as Jewish for the purposes of citizenship, but not for status
Many immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union cannot prove their Jewish identity through matrilineal descent and therefore are not recognized as Jewish. As a result, these immigrants, like non-Orthodox converts, cannot receive services from the Rabbinate. The most significant consequence is that these people (who identify as Jews) have no mechanism to be legally married in Israel because the Rabbinate is the official body performing all Jewish marriages in Israel and there is no secular/ civil alternative.


1Cohen, Shaye. “The Matrilineal Principle in Historical Perspective.” Judaism, 34.1 (1985).
2CCAR (1983, March 15) Resolution: the Status of Children of Mixed Marriages; CCAR (1983, October) Responsa: Patrilineal and Matrilineal Descent.
3Resolution of Declaration of State of Israel (1948).
4Law of Return (1950) and its Amendments.
5Will be linked to sections regarding Ethiopian immigrants and FSU immigrants.
6"The Conversion Crisis: Testing the Principles," Anti-Defamation League.

"For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge I will lodge; your people are my people, and your God my God." (Ruth 1:16)


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