updated 3/31/2005 4:57:45 AM ET 2005-03-31T09:57:45

Israel’s Supreme Court agreed Thursday to recognize non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism that are at least partly performed in Israel, giving a limited victory to the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements, which had been marginalized by the religious establishment here.

Under current practice, Israel recognizes only those conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis inside Israel, although people converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside the country are eligible for citizenship under Israel’s “Law of Return.”

The court ruled on a case brought in 1999 by 17 foreigners who studied for Reform or Conservative conversions in Israel but had the ceremonies performed abroad in an attempt to get around the limitations. Israeli authorities objected to their conversions, saying the Law of Return does not apply to foreigners already living in Israel.

The ruling Thursday accepted the conversions, granting legal recognition to those who study for conversions in Israel but go through the actual conversion process abroad. The court did not rule on whether those who complete their conversions in Israel would be recognized as Jews.

“It’s a partial victory,” said Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement in Israel.

Bandel had hoped the court would give blanket recognition to all non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel, though none of the petitioners had actually converted in Israel.

The petitioners, however, were thrilled with the decisions and said the court had seriously eroded the Orthodox monopoly on conversions.

“This is a great ruling. On one hand, all the petitioners received the status of new immigrants, a status they have been waiting for over more than eight years,” Nicole Maor, a lawyer for the petitioners, told Israel Radio. “Secondly, while this is limited to overseas conversions, the court ruled emphatically that the government could not create a monopoly on conversions here. If the they want a monopoly for Orthodox conversions, they have to legislate it.”

The conversion battle cuts to the heart of the identity of the Jewish state and was being watched by Jews outside Israel, where the Reform and Conservative movements are more widely accepted than they are here.

The Reform and Conservative leaders said a ruling in their favor would provide an important stamp of approval for their movements.

The Reform and Conservative movements are the two largest streams of Judaism in the United States, but they have been largely sidelined in Israel. The dominant Orthodox establishment has a virtual monopoly over issues such as marriage, divorce, and burial, as well as sizable budgets from the government for schools and other programs.

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