The Conversion Crisis: The Chief Rabbi of Israel vs. The Israel Defense Forces?!

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In an op-ed in Yedioth Ahronoth, IDI Vice President of Research Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern urges the Israeli government to fend off political pressure, act morally, and assert that anyone who has converted to Judaism in the Israel Defense Forces is a Jew.

The Israeli government is about to convene to discuss a bill designed to ensure that conversions of immigrant soldiers performed during the course of service in the Israel Defense Forces become legally binding. According to the proposed legislation, the Chief Rabbi of Israel will no longer have exclusive authority for conversions in the army; rather, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces will also be authorized to sign conversion certificates of IDF converts.

This matter is of utmost importance. According to Israeli law, the only way to join the Jewish collective is through religious conversion. Given that the majority of Jews in Israel are not religious, entrusting the keys to the gates of Jewish identity to rabbis is not self evident. It is necessary to give them this authority, however, since the responsibility for determining "who is a Jew" must be given to a body whose religious authority is accepted by the vast majority of Israeli Jews. At present, only Orthodox religious conversion is accepted by all sectors of the Jewish Israeli public.  Any other solution would have the potential to lead to national disaster: the splintering of the Jewish people into separate national groups—a rift that might never heal.

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar is opposed to the bill. As he sees it, it is necessary to establish one standard for all conversions performed in Israel—whether under military or civilian auspices. In principle, he is correct. However, Chief Rabbi Amar must understand that he has been entrusted with a vital public asset. His signature determines who is a Jew. A wave of his hand determines personal and national destinies. Accordingly, the monopoly of authority that he has been granted cannot be colored by extremist positions.

The Chief Rabbi's recent decisions regarding conversions in the army have been pushing the Israeli public-including religious Zionists like myself—to demand that his monopoly on conversions be broken. The number of people who have converted to Judaism through the IDF is approaching 5,000 men and women. In addition to serving in the "army of the people," each of these soldiers chose to participate in the rigorous study of Jewish subjects, to undergo circumcision or ritual immersion in the mikvah, and to stand before an Orthodox religious court and embrace Judaism as a new identity.

Approximately half of the soldiers who begin the conversion process in the army do not complete it. This is due to the fact, among other reasons, that conversion in the IDF is a serious process that makes significant demands on would-be converts. Those soldiers who have completed the process see themselves, and are seen by those around them, as Jews. Some of them have already married Jews and have begun to bear and raise children. Yet suddenly—due to administrative, extra-halakhic considerations—the Chief Rabbinate is casting aspersions on the legitimacy of their conversions.

The bill that is on the table is not radical; it does not deal with matters of religion or with the substance of conversion. Its sole purpose is to allow an additional rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi who is the leading religious authority of the Israeli army, to perform the administrative act of issuing conversion certificates for military conversions. Sadly, since the Chief Rabbi has abandoned his responsibility to prevent the oppression of converts (hona'at ha-ger), Israel's public officials must now take action to put an end to such oppression. It is imperative that the government of Israel fend off political pressure, act morally, and assert that whoever converted to Judaism in the IDF is a Jew, full stop.

My heart goes out to the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Although he wants to allow the recognition of IDF conversions, he was subjected to intense pressure from the Haredi community and he gave in to it. However, when a fine man is appointed to serve as Chief Rabbi, he must act like a Chief Rabbi. This is a moment of truth not only for the Israeli government but also for Chief Rabbi Amar: Is it appropriate for him to base his authority on momentary political pressure, resting on the coalition's reliance on the Haredi parties? Surely such authority would be extremely fragile, able to evaporate at any moment.

The Chief Rabbinate must act in accordance with Jewish law and out of a deep sense of national responsibility, weighing all the implications of all decisions regarding conversion. When the Chief Rabbi positions himself in opposition to the Orthodox, strictly "kosher" conversions conducted in the IDF, he loses public legitimacy. As a result, he may end up losing his authority over civilian conversions as well.


Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University.

This article was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on December 8, 2010, and has been translated and used with permission.