Just when the conversion crisis seemed to have abated, with a six-month hiatus in place for the controversial bill proposed by Knesset Member David Rotem, the Israeli High Court of Justice was the scene this week of a new setback — one that could undermine negotiations under way to resolve the deeply troubling issue.
On Monday the justices were informed, to their great surprise, that according to the state, soldiers who converted to Judaism while serving in the Israel Defense Forces are not eligible to be registered to be married — in other words, they are not considered fully Jewish.
The educational program offering conversion courses to soldiers, most of them from Russian immigrant families, has been considered a success as well as a sign of hope and a model for more widespread efforts. Through the training of Beit Morasha, a Jerusalem-based educational institute that works closely with the IDF, about 4,500 soldiers have completed the conversion course in recent years.
But according to an attorney for the state, the conversion certificate issued through the IDF applies to legal matters only. “It opens the door [to be Jewish] but nothing more,” the attorney, Yochi Gnessen, told the court, as reported in The Jerusalem Post.
Justice Uzi Fogelman said Gnessen’s statement “makes me sick. To say such a thing to a soldier who has converted.”
This latest revelation further underscores the untenable situation wherein people who have in good conscience undertaken the religious requirements for conversion later find out they are not acceptable in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate, whose attitude consistently has been the opposite of welcoming.
It is time for more enlightened Israeli rabbis to challenge the authority of the Chief Rabbinate or create an alternative system whereby they would deal more ethically and humanely with matters of marriage, divorce, conversion and burial.
Major-General Elazar Stern, a leader in both the IDF and national religious movement, expressed outrage at the Chief Rabbinate for questioning the authenticity of the IDF conversions. “If there’s no other choice, there will be two separate religious systems,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “It’s a shame the State of Israel has given the keys to a group of people [Chief Rabbinate officials], many of whom don’t even recognize the state.”
And it is more than a shame that an institution charged with fostering Judaism in the Jewish state has been the single greatest factor in alienating the majority of Israelis from their religion. The time for change is now.