Sunday 19 December 2010

Playing Politics With the IDF Conversion Bill

With so many important matters confronting our government, I often feel really frustrated at the amount of time that seems to be wasted by politicians in playing needless political games. This is exactly the feeling that I have now watching the amount of time, effort and money that is being wasted in bringing the so-called IDF Conversion Bill through the Knesset.

The background to the story begins with what seems to be one of the great anomalies of the modern State of Israel. The Law of Return was enacted soon after the independence of Israel. This law is designed to give Jews an automatic right to take up citizenship in Israel without any need for a period of naturalisation. This was a particularly urgent need in the years following the Holocaust when so many Jews were displaced without being a citizen of any country, or who were citizens of countries that they were eager to escape from. The Law of Return grants the right to immediate citizenship of Israel to those who have one Jewish grandparent. The definition of those who have entitlement under the law, comes from the one that Hitler applied to those who he decided should be put to death under the "Final Solution". The definition is, however, at odds with the definition of a Jew under Jewish law. Under Jewish law (halacha), any person who has a Jewish mother is Jewish. This results in thousands of Israeli citizens, who have obtained citizenship under the Law of Return, who are not Jewish according to halacha.

This phenomenon particularly affects many of the immigrants who came from the countries of the former Soviet Union, and who increasingly found themselves hitting their heads against a bureaucratic brick wall as a result of their status as non-Jewish Israeli citizens. To them, it seems absurd that they are granted citizenship of a country, only to find that they are not treated as "full Jews" under the law. The great melting pot of Israeli society is the Israel Defence Force (IDF) and, as the IDF has seen more and more of these people coming through their ranks, they have decided to implement a program to allow those who wish to convert to Judaism during the course of their military training. Over the past eight to ten years, almost 5,000 soldiers have been converted to Judaism under the auspices of the IDF and its Chief Rabbi.

Recently, these conversions were brought into question by Israel's Chief Rabbinate, in its capacity as the national authority over all conversions to Judaism in Israel. This means that all those who were converted to Judaism during their military service, may find themselves being declared not "properly" Jewish if this is what the Chief Rabbinate decides. The status of 5,000 people is suddenly brought into question, and their lives thrown into turmoil. It seems that the reason for the Chief Rabbinate questioning the conversions has nothing to do with the process followed or the way in which the conversions were undertaken. We are told that they have found this all to be entirely kosher ! The reason for reopening these cases is seemingly all about power. The Chief Rabbinate needs to exercise the power which it has been granted on these issues, to ensure that the IDF Rabbinate does not exceed its own powers. The lives of the individuals concerned is nothing when compared to the necessity for these organisations to assert their power and authority.

The issue was brought to the Knesset when the Yisrael Beiteinu party,which has many of the IDF converts in its constituency of supporters, introduced a bill that will legally confirm these conversions and not allow them to be reopened by the Chief Rabbinate. Although I can fully associate with the party and its desire to represent the interests of its voters, the truth is that this issue should never need to be raised by the Knesset. This is an issue which can easily be sorted out between the Chief Rabbinate and the IDF, without Israel's legislature being forced to intervene. What makes things worse is the fact that the Shas party actually opposed the bill. The Shas opposition arises from the desire to strengthen Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi, who is also head of the conversion court. It seems as though the introduction of this bill is seen to be weakening his authority on this matter.

The Knesset battle is all about power. On the one hand, the converts and Yisrael Beiteinu are seeking to undermine the powers vested in the Chief Rabbinate, while Shas and its supporters are desperately working to strengthen them. Caught in the middle of this all is Prime Minister Netanyahu who has been forced to intervene, as the two parties opposing each other on the matter are both members of his governing coalition. A serious split on this seemingly insignificant issue could bring down the narrow coalition, and the government with it.

Irrespective of how the Knesset ultimately votes on this matter, it is shameful that precious government and parliament time needs to be devoted to this power struggle. While it may be true that the Chief Rabbinate formally has a power of veto on matters relating to conversions, there seems to be no logical reason why they could not come to an arrangement with the IDF to ease the path and future lives of the converts in question. Reopening conversions going back ten years seems to be a price that is too high to pay for the benefit of reinforcing the power of the Chief Rabbinate. The decision to do this has clearly been the wrong one. This is a classic case of power incorrectly exercised for personal gain.

For the record, the prime minister agreed not to enforce the coalition agreement (which binds members of government to vote in the way that the prime minister prescribes) for the purpose of voting on the IDF Conversion Bill, and allowed all members of the coalition to vote according to their conscience. The preliminary Knesset reading of the bill was passed by a large majority of 74 votes to 18. The significant issue of wasting valuable Knesset time has, however, not yet debated.

The largest issue at stake is the lives of 5,000 converts and their families. These are individuals who have come to Israel as new immigrants, and who have served the country with distinction by serving in the armed forces. This is the army that defends not only Israelis, but Jews around the world. It is right that those who have converted to Judaism according to the rules laid down, should be allowed to be secure in the knowledge that they are fully accepted within the Jewish fold. With so many Jews being lost to assimilation around the world, we can ill afford to disrespect and disregard those who choose to join the ranks, and who are prepared to put their lives on the line in the defence of the Jewish state. Jewish law requires us to respect converts to Judaism even more than those who were born Jewish. These converts deserve the greatest respect that we can give them.

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