The Israeli High Court decision to recognize non-orthodox conversions sparked lively debate in Israel on an issue that deeply affects Israelis and Jews worldwide.The Israeli Supreme Court handed down a potentially explosive decision in January, ruling that persons who underwent reform and conservative conversions must be formally recognized as Jews on their identity cards.

The 9-2 decision is seen as especially significant in that it recognizes the validity of non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel, as well as those performed abroad. Previously, reform and conservative conversions performed in Israel were not officially recognized, and the Interior Ministry refused the requests of such converts to be registered as Jews on their identity papers.

At the same time, in a move that may serve to offset ultra-Orthodox anger over the conversion issue, the court rejected a leftist challenge to the draft deferments granted to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

Tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union could be directly affected by the conversion ruling, undergoing reform and conservative conversions to be recognized on the Interior Ministry’s official population rolls as Jews.

The Chief Rabbinate and other religious officials retain control over who may marry in Israel, and the decision will have no direct bearing on their status.

Minutes after the court announced its decision, Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau criticized the ruling as causing potential distress for the converts it was aimed at aiding. He said it also did not extend to the Law of Return, which provides immediate Israeli citizenship for all immigrants recognized under its provisions as Jews.

“The decision will very much confuse these ‘converts’ whose conversions, in my view, do not hold,” Lau said, in a reference to persons who had undergone non-Orthodox conversions. “In my view it deepens the rift within the people, between them and the society. There will be converts who are registered as Jews according to Jewish law and tradition, then there will be converts registered as Jews only according to the High Court’s ruling, and they will be bandied about in a great storm.

“Their identity cards will be worthless,” Lau said. “Tomorrow, if they want to register to get married, the day after if they go to the Immigration Ministry to ask for their basket of benefits or citizenship, they’ll be told ‘No, you’re only thought of as a Jew on the population rolls, while as far as everything else goes, you remain in your goyishness.'”

Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party was expected to try to circumvent the court decision by means of new legislation.

An extended panel of 11 High Court Justices heard the petitions regarding non-Orthodox conversion and draft deferments.

The conversion issue has been in and out of court several times in the last few years. Though Israel has recognized Reform and Conservative conversions performed overseas ever since the High Court ordered it to do so in 1986, such conversions are not recognized by the state when performed in Israel.

Seven years ago, the High Court ruled that the Orthodox monopoly on conversions was illegal, but it did not explicitly order the state to accept non-Orthodox conversions, and in practice, no government has ever done so.

In ensuing years, the court repeatedly postponed hearings on petitions by some 50 people who demanded that the state register them as Jewish following local non-Orthodox conversions, while successive governments tried, yet failed, to broker a compromise that could be enacted into legislation.

The matter came to a head in 1998, when the Jerusalem District Court ruled that the state must recognize such conversions, as it was absurd for non-Orthodox conversions to be valid when performed overseas, but not when performed locally.