The Law of Return, the Chief Rabbinate and the Status of Non-Orthodox Jews in Israel By Dr Jaafar Hadi Hassan13 min read

It is a well known fact that most of the population in Israel are immigrants who came to the country according to the Law of Return which was passed by the Israeli Knesset in 1950. This Law, in conjunction with a later Nationality Law, gives every Jew the right to settle in Israel and acquire instant, automatic citizenship. It is worth mentioning here that the Religious Authority in Israelrecognizes as Jews only those who are born to a Jewish mother or were converted to Judaism according to the Halakhah (Jewish Religious Law) as interpreted by the Orthodox. However, among the groups which emigrated according to this law, were followers of some sects which are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate, the Religious Authority, in Israel. They are considered non-conformist. This paper will deal with these groups which faced and are still facing problems with the Religious Authority and with Orthodox Jews in general, regarding their Jewishness. The state, nevertheless, still encourages them to emigrate and grants them citizenship in order to help fill the land, in this case, with people whose Jewish origin is not recognized by the Religious Authority.

One of the earliest of these groups which emigrated to Israel according to the Law of Return and has encountered problems with the Chief Rabbinate ever since their arrival in the country, are the Qaraites. The Qaraites are a Jewish sect which was founded in the eighth century AD by Anan ben David in Iraq and subsequently spread to many other countries.1 From its inception this sect did not recognize the Talmud which is considered by mainstream Jews as the second source for the Jewish religious law after the Torah (Old Testament). Consequently when the Qaraites arrived in Israel the Chief Rabbinate refused to recognize their Jewishness. In fact they considered them heretics and as such their marriages and divorces invalid. In addition, their marriage with non-Qaraite Jews is not sanctioned by the Religious Authority. When former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Nissim was asked if there was any way that a marriage between a Qaraite and non-Qaraite could be validated, his answer was that it is impossible unless the Qaraite converts to Orthodoxy. He even said that “the position of a Qaraite is worse than the position of the Christian who wants to become Jewish because of the doubtful legitimate birth.” Additionally, the former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Ulterman said “Our stand was defined through the generations and ages that our sages cursed any one who would remove the ban on marriage to the Qaraites and, therefore, the ban is impossible to remove.”2 As a result of this, the Qaraites cannot be issued with marriage and divorce certificates which naturally creates problems for them, and also cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries, serve on religious councils etc. Consequently Qaraite leaders have repeatedly tried to resolve their ambiguous status. They applied in 1960 for separate recognition of their religious council, but were talked out of it by the head of the state, Ben Zvi. He, together with other secular Jews, wanted to avoid a legal distinction between Qaraites and other Jews. Similar appeals were made in 1962 and in 1965 and although the government refused these appeals, it did, however, form a Commission for Examination of the Personal Status of the Qaraites. After a year’s deliberation it issued its recommendations which called for granting the Qaraites legal authority over their own personal status and for recognition of their religious courts. After several years’ delay and several more public appeals by Qaraite leaders, a bill to the effect was introduced in the Knesset. It was not passed.3 The Qaraites nowadays are considered a separate sect and because of this they feel betrayed by the state and treated as second-class citizens. As a result many of them, frustrated by this treatment, have emigrated to France, Canada and the United States.

Another Jewish group which faces problems in Israel with the Chief Rabbinate is called the progressive group, mainly the Reform and the Conservative (Masorti) Jews. These groups have different opinions from the Jewish Orthodoxy regarding the Torah and the Talmud. They recognise female rabbis and have many other different practices which do not conform with the Jewish Orthodoxy. These people have therefore faced discrimination from the Religious Authority since the establishment of the state. When they complained of discrimination against their kind of Judaism in the early years of the state, Ben Gurion and Golda Meir told them that their movements would be accepted in Israel only if sufficient numbers of their members settled in the Jewish state. The Religious Authority considers this group, like the Qaraites, as a separate sect and does not recognise any conversions to Judaism they perform in Israel or outside it as valid. When the Reform Jews demanded that their conversions be accepted in Israel, the conversion authority in the Chief Rabbinate office proposed the recognition of the Reform Jews as a separate religious community in Israel and stated “Reform is anyway a different religion in every manner – it allows intermarriage…and does not believe in the Torah.” The former Sephardic chief Rabbi Itzhak Nissim even stated that Reform is not a religion and said “Freedom of religions is intended for members of all religions, including minorities, but it is not intended to achieve the opposite objective with the result that the dominant religion in the state, Judaism, be jeopardized and torn asunder…Reform is not a religion”.4

Orthodox Rabbis and politicians have used every opportunity to delegitimise and harass progressive Jews. The Chief Rabbinate in Israel is always warning practising Jews not to attend Reform and Conservative services. A statement circulated in 1984 proclaimed that “it is strictly forbidden to pray in Reform and Conservative synagogues. Whoever prays in such a place almost certainly has not fulfilled the obligation of Torah reading, or prayer”.5 Progressive Rabbis are not permitted to serve as army chaplains, officiate at marriage ceremonies, serve on religious councils etc. According to this group, Israeli schools and textbooks portray them in a very stereotyped way, as inherently assimilationist and anti-Zionist, in spite of the fact that they are very active Zionists and have two Zionist organizations, one called ARZA which belongs to the Reform Jews and one called Merkaz which belongs to the Conservatives. The followers of progressive Judaism number many thousands in Israel and in spite of the stance of the Religious Authority towards them, the government still encourages those outside to emigrate.

The followers of Reconstructionist Judaism are considered to be in the same category and treated in the same way. This movement was established by Rabbi Mordacai Kaplan in the 1930s in the United States after he had published his book “Judaism as Civilization”. This book provides the foundation for the Reconstructionist ideology. According to Kaplan, Judaism should be understood as evolving religious civilization. He believes that in order for the Jewish community to survive, Judaism must eliminate its authoritarian dogmatic features. In particular, Judaism must divest itself of supernatural beliefs such as belief in a supernatural God. Kaplan also believes that the Bible is the work of many people in many ages and does not believe that the Halakhah (the Jewish Religious Law) is holy and unchangeable. In their prayer book the Reconstructionists have eliminated all references to the Revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the doctrine of the personal messiah and the Jews as the chosen people. Kaplan and his followers were excommunicated by the Orthodox for expressing atheism, heresy and disbelief in the basic tenets of Judaism.6

Yet another of these groups is that of the Ethiopian Jews who are known as the Falashas and who call themselves Beta Yesrael. These Jews were brought to Israel, according to the Law of Return, in two operations in the nineteen eighties and early nineties of the last century. Their number is estimated now at about 70,000. Ever since their arrival in Israel the Chief Rabbinate has cast doubt on their Jewishness. The reason given was that the Ethiopian Jews had totally lost contact with Jewish laws (implying non-recognition of the Talmud). In the eyes of the Rabbis they were considered “mamzerim” (illegitimate children) and their marriage contracts were not recognized and, consequently, neither were their divorces.7 They were asked to convert to Orthodox Judaism. One of the requirements for conversion to Orthodoxy is circumcision, which the Ethiopian Jews have practised. However the Chief Rabbinate did not recognize the manner in which circumcision was practised by them. There were also other rituals which they had to undergo and observe. Some of them conformed to this conversion but the majority of them rejected it as they considered it to be insulting and humiliating. Some declared it to be pure racism, protested and demonstrated and about 30 people committed suicide in 1985-1987 because of the discrimination against them.8 Because of these problems some of the Ethiopian Jews began to join Reform or Conservative Judaism for recognition and some began to shun Judaism in general, and Israelis in particular, and have begun looking for an identity and culture of a mixed African and Caribbean type. They have begun to talk about black nationalism, stating their belief in that, rather than in Judaism.

The Messianic Jews are another group which faces problems in Israel with the Religious Authority. These people who number several thousand in Israel today consider themselves Jews, but also believe in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, whereas all other Orthodox Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to come. Because of this group’s belief in Jesus, the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize them as Jews. In fact, some ultra-Orthodox want the followers of this sect to be forced to become orthodox or be deported and they have established organizations to fight this group, to spy on them and inform the Ministry of the Interior about their proselytising activities. The best known of these organizations is called “Yad L’ahim” (Strength for the Brothers). Messianic Jews are often harassed and persecuted by the Orthodox. In 1997 two Knesset members proposed a bill which makes the printing, possession, reproduction, distribution or import of religious material that induces conversion criminal offences, punishable by a year in jail. The Messianic Jews criticized this bill and said “The bill criminalizes basic human rights and limits the freedom of people to tell about their beliefs”.9 Nevertheless, despite all this, their number is on the increase and they have many places of worship.

A further group of non-conformist Jews who emigrated from the United States to Israel, according to the Law of Return, are the Black Jews who call themselves Hebrew Israelites. The first group of these people arrived in Israel about 1969 and since then others have followed. Although the authority doubted their Jewishness they were allowed to stay temporarily and recently were granted residence. They now number a few thousands and their number is increasing because of their high birthrate. They too, like other non-conformist Jews, are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel because they believe only in the first five books of the Old Testament and the Talmud has no authority over them. They also differ from the Orthodox Jews in believing that Jesus is a prophet of God. In addition they do not celebrate some of the important Jewish festivals and do not practise all Jewish rituals. They believe too that the founder of the sect and their current leader, Ben Ammi, is a prophet. The Chief Rabbinate asked these people to convert to Orthodox Judaism as otherwise they would not be recognized as Jews, but they rejected this suggestion fiercely and considered it an insult. Now they live in Israel as residents but not as citizens, nonetheless there is no doubt that the government will eventually grant them citizenship.10 A well known incident occurred recently which confirms the non-recognition of this group by the Orthodox Jews, when one of their members was killed on 17th January 2002 and was not allowed to be buried in a Jewish cemetery by the Religious Authority and was buried outside it.11 Another group that I would like to mention here are followers of Secular Humanistic Judaism which appeared in the sixties of the last century in the United States. This sect, like the majority of those already discussed, has many followers all over the world including Israel. These people believe in a Judaism devoid of a divine element. They profess to be atheists and believe that Judaism was the creation of the Jews. They also deny the existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and consider the Exodus account to be a myth. According to them, the Biblical account is not authoritative, rather, it is a human account of the history of the Israelites.12 Although the beliefs of this sect go against the basic tenets of Judaism they are active in Israel and work for their brand of Judaism publicly and have their own synagogues.

Another group which emigrated in the latter years of the last century came from Russia. Many thousands of them are not considered proper Jews. According to the head of the Conversion Authority at the Chief Rabbinate, Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, up to 300,00 of the recent arrival (of Russians) maybe gentiles, (non-Jewish) but only 5,000 have converted. Many of these arrivals are Christians and others are not interested in becoming Jews.13 Others say that almost 50 per cent of the total population of the Russian immigrants are non-Jewish.14 But these immigrants have, nevertheless, been granted citizenship, given accommodation and all kinds of help and are very active in supporting and maintaining the State. The fact that the Religious Authority does not recognize any of these groups and sects did not and does not in any way deter the State from encouraging them to emigrate, welcoming them and assisting them to settle in every way. In other words, using the Law of Return as an instrument in order to fill the land with people who say they are Jewish. This policy is a deliberate one and it is not new. In fact it has been pursued by Israel for a long time so that displaced Palestinians or their descendants will have no land to return to. This goes against the UN Resolution No 194 which demands that Israel allow them to return to their homeland.


  1. On the Qaraite history and belief see Jacfar H Hassan, The Jewish Qaraite Sect (Arabic). 2. S.Z. Abramov, Perpetual Dilemma pp.282-3. 3. D. Ross, Acts of Faith p.142. 4. W. Frankel, Israel Observed pp.217-8 5. M.A. Meyer, Response to Modernity, A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism p.468. 6. Dan-Cohn-Sherbok, The Future of Judaism pp.135-137 7. R.S. Feuerlicht, The Fate of the Jews p.206 8. T.G. Wagaw, For Our Soul : Ethiopian Jews in Israel pp.118-9 9. The Jerusalem Report 29/5/1997 10. On the history and beliefs of the Hebrew Israelites see M. Launds (Jr) Israel’s Black Hebrews. 11. The Jerusalem Report 11/2/2002 12. The main reference on the subject of Secular Humanistic Judaism is “Judaism Beyond God” by Sherwin T Wine (a prominent exponents of this sect). 13. the Jerusalem Report 25/12/1997 14. D. Siegel The Great Immigration , Russian Jews in Israel, p.64 *This paper was given at the international conference on the Israeli Law of Return, which was held at the University of London in April 2002.