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http://www3.haaretz.co.il/eng/scripts/article.asp?mador=14&datee=09/18/00&id=93291

Who is a Jew, again

By Shahar Ilan, Ha'aretz Monday, September 18, 2000

It's still a long road to cancelling the nationality rubric in the population registry. This is an issue that in the past has stirred up political emotions strong enough to rock governments.

The road begins with the approval of the Knesset Law, Justice and Constitution Committee. A majority is expected there, but it's not guaranteed. Then, Interior Ministry Haim Ramon can cancel the provision - but only in ID cards, not in the actual population registry. That requires legislation. But even if he does go the half-step and it might take a lot of the wind from the sails of this age-old controversy, it won't go away entirely.

Eleven justices are now convened as a High Court of Justice to hear requests from some 50 converts who want their Judaism recognized. Most are Reform or Conservative Movement converts. That's where the latest battle lines are drawn in the war over "who is a Jew."

There are two issues here. One is who will be recognized as a Jew under the Law of Return - immigrantion rights. But most of the appellants in the case already have immigrant rights because of family family ties, so that element is largely irrelevant.

The real issue is who will be registered as a Jew in the Population Registry and on the ID - meaning who will the state actually recognize as a Jew.

If Ramon could cancel the nationality element in the registry that would render most, if not all, High Court cases on the matter meaningless. But since he can only eliminate it from the ID card, the court cases will continue.

Others affected by the issue are new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are forced to suffer odd and bizarre classifications like "nation-less" or "Ukrainian."

So, who cares about the nationality item? Mostly the National Religious Party, which regards it as central to the Jewish identity of the state. In the past there were those who claimed the Shabach needed it for security reasons. But finally someone asked them, and their answer was "nonsense." Another myth gone.

Ramon has not yet signed the elimination of the national identity rubric. He's passed it on to some other ministers for their opinions. But when they return it to him it will need that Knesset Committee okay.

The chair of the committee, MK Amnon Rubinstein of Meretz, says he believes the committee has a majority in favor, because of the MKs representing new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He plans to bring the issue up during the Knesset recess, possibly for a vote at the same time.

Traditionally, the Haredim were in favor of cancelling the nationality rubric because they saw it as a technical, not a ideological issue. But committee member Avraham Ravitz of United Torah Judaism isn't quite ready to say he won't oppose it - in a time of "civic revolutions" he is particularly suspicious.

Yesterday Rabbi Michael Melchior, the only religious minister, who represents Meimad in the One Israel faction, came up with his own ideas for a reform of the registry problem. But his solution requires legislation.

His proposal is for the citizens to declare their nationality. That will satisfy the Orthodox, because the state won't determine if the citizen is a Jew. It will satisfy the Reform and Conservative, because it will be egalitarian.

At the same time, the original conversion documents will be deposited with the population registry, so the registrar can check if the person converted according to Halakha.


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