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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

CWJ and the Cancelled Conversions

Why is the Center for Women's Justice representing the woman whose conversion was revoked? (“The Druckman Conversion Case”)

A few words of background:

In May, 2008, the Israeli Supreme Rabbinic Court issued a decision in which it did the following:

• Effectively repealed the conversion of a woman who had been Jewish for 15 years (!)
• Invalidated all conversions done by Rabbi Haim Druckman since 1999.
• Ordered marriage registrars to refrain from registering converts who do not appear to be Torah-Observant (no matter who presided over the conversion).

First, an explanation of why the Center for Women's Justice has taken on the case. Second, an outline of our petition to Israel's Supreme Court sitting as the High Court of Justice.

I. What’s the connection between Repealed Conversions and Agunot?

The conversion issue often arises ancillary to a divorce: Rabbinic Courts have jurisdiction over the question of "Who is a Convert?" when the convert applies for a marriage license; or in the case of divorce. If the convert is not considered Jewish, the registrar will not allow her to marry; and the rabbinic court will not conduct the get ceremony.

This is not the first time CWJ has represented a woman whose conversion had been questioned. In the first case, we represented a woman who sued for a get. As a "defense," her husband filed a complaint with the conversion court, claiming that his wife was not a Torah Observant Jew because she had participated in a New Year's Eve party. The husband thought his wife should both pay for her get, and be ousted from the Jewish people. Our client in fact paid for the get, and is divorced. At the same time, the conversion court held that our client was a “questionable” Jew (safeq yehudiyah) (!). Her case is on appeal.

In CWJ's current case, our client also wanted a divorce. But in contrast to the first case, the couple had reached an amicable settlement. They arrived at the Ashdod rabbinic court for the express and solitary purpose of completing the ritual of the get. Rabbi Atia, the judge in charge of the get procedure, noticed that our client was a convert and, at his own initiative, started asking her questions: Did she turn on lights on the Sabbath? Did she observe the laws of family purity? When he was not satisfied with her answers, Rabbi Atia held that she, like our other client, was a “questionable Jew” (and so were her 3 children and husband) and refused to issue the divorce certificate to the couple.

Women are often targeted in conversion cases. CWJ’s express goal is to protect the interests of women in the Israeli rabbinic courts. Since Jewish lineage is matrilineal, the rabbis scrutinize women converts more carefully than male converts. If a man is not really Jewish and he lives with a Jewish woman, their children are still Jewish.

This case has enabled us to highlight the abuses of the Rabbinic Courts.The rabbinic courts of the State of Israel do not respect precedents; reject the notion of the finality of judgment; do not understand the laws of evidence; and ignore the concept of procedural due process. These sad truths are devastating for our clients and very hard for us to demonstrate, mostly because our clients would rather obtain their get, than fight principle. In this case, the abuses of the rabbinic courts are blatant, easily pinpointed, all too monumental in proportion to ignore, and leave us no choice but to respond.

No respect for precedents. Professionals who work in the rabbinic court are never sure of the grounds for divorce in Israel. Violence? A husband's infidelity? The rules change from court to court. Similarly, in this case, it is unclear what the grounds are, if any, for a conversion to be repealed. Is Rabbi Druckman's conversion court subject to the rulings of the rabbinic court, or vice versa?

No regard for the laws of evidence. Assuming one can articulate the grounds for divorce, how does a legal professional prove violence, or infidelity? The rabbinic courts have no clear rules of evidence. Similarly, in this case, the court held that Rabbi Druckman was a "fraud and a cheat" on the basis of letters sent by third parties to the rabbinic courts complaining about Rabbi Druckman (hearsay). They did not even bother to call the third-parties into court to testify.

No notion of finality of judgment. CWJ divorce clients never know when they can expect a final judgment in their divorce cases--- in a year? 10 years? A lifetime? Similarly, this case proves that a convert can never know how long her conversion will last. Until she gets divorced? Until she decides to wear a pair of pants? Until her son applies to marry an Israeli Jew? Her conversion is subject to relentless review.

No concept of procedural due process. On the basis of rumors and allegations raised in the midst of acrimonious divorce proceedings, the rabbinic courts often put alleged lovers and unborn children onto [black]lists that prevent them marrying. The rabbis raise issues that are not before them. Similarly in the case at hand, the rabbis "tried" Rabbi Druckman without him being present, in a case over which they have no jurisdiction. Similarly, the rabbis raised the issue of the validity of a conversion of our client on their own accord, without being asked by the parties to do so.

II. What are the key arguments of CWJ's petition to the Supreme Court?

Our petition to the Supreme Court is divided into three sections: The first, refers to that part of the decision of the rabbinic court that effectively repeals our client’s (and her 3 children’s) conversions; the second, refers to the rabbinic court’s invalidation of all Rabbi Druckman’s conversions since 1999: and the third, refers to the courts’ directives to the marriage registrars to refrain from registering converts to marry. In each part, we argue that the rabbinic court acted outside its jurisdiction and violated the rules of natural justice (procedural due process).

  1. Our client. We argue that the rabbinic court had no jurisdiction to question the status of our client as a Jew because she holds a valid conversion certificate from a state-authorized bet din; and because the issue of the validity of the conversion was not raised by any of the parties. In addition, we claim that the rabbinic court violated the rules of natural justice when it started conducting an inquiry into our client’s religious behavior, without the parties understanding the implications of the questions that were asked of them.

  2. Rabbi Druckman. We argue that the rabbinic court had no jurisdiction to hear the case of State Rabbinic Courts vs Druckman. Rabbi Druckman was not seeking a divorce and was not a party to the action. In addition, the rabbinic court violated the rules of natural justice when it accepted hearsay evidence as determinative, and without giving Druckman the opportunity to defend himself.

  3. The marriage registrars. We argue that the rabbinic court has no jurisdiction over marriage registrars and cannot direct the way that they do, or do not, register converts to marry. In addition, the rabbinic court violated the rules of natural justice when it ordered the registrars to ignore valid conversion certificates of the state itself.