Military conversion bill advances in Knesset

JERUSALEM (JTA) — A Knesset committee approved a bill to protect Israeli soldiers who have converted to Judaism through military conversion courts from having their conversions annulled.

The bill approved Sunday by the Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs would force all state agencies, including rabbinic courts, the chief rabbis of cities and other Orthodox marriage registrars to accept the converts as Jews.

Members of the haredi Orthodox party Shas opposed the bill, which was initiated by David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party. The measure advances to the floor of the Knesset, where it must be approved in three readings. 

In September, a state prosecutor argued before Israel’s Supreme Court, during a court hearing to address the refusal by town and city rabbis to register converts for marriage, that conversions of Israeli soldiers by the military rabinate are not valid. About 4,500 soldiers, the majority of them women, have converted to Judaism while in the Israeli military.

"Recently, doubts have been cast over the validity of [military court] conversions, despite the fact that they are being carried out in accordance with Jewish religious law," Rotem wrote in the introduction to the bill. "To remove any doubt, and remove the cloud hanging over the heads of previous converts and those studying for conversion today, this bill proposes that it be stated clearly that the chief military rabbi is allowed to set up conversion courts and that the confirmation from such a court will serve as a valid conversion certificate."

The Israeli organization Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel is opposing the bill, saying it will not solve the problem and that the state should recognize conversions performed by rabbis of all streams of Judaism.

Hiddush President Rabbi Uri Regev called the bill "an objectionable and anti-religious legislation which should be opposed by anyone who is committed to democracy and religious freedom." 

"The Knesset should not be forcing on rabbinic courts and city rabbis its interpretation to halachic conversion. Rather it should end the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly over conversion and marriage altogether, and maintain that rabbinic edicts and decisions would apply only to those who voluntarily choose to accept them," Regev said.

He added, "Any other ‘solution’ is merely a patch, and a bad one at that."

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