Military conversion bill passes first reading in Knesset


JERUSALEM (JTA) — A bill that would validate conversions to Judaism through Israel’s military rabbinate passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset.

The measure, sponsored by David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, passed Wednesday by a vote of 75 to 18. It was opposed by the haredi Orthodox Shas Party. Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas are part of the majority government coalition.

The bill, which still must pass two more readings in the Knesset, would allow the conversions to be approved by the state without the signature of the Chief Rabbinate. It would protect Israeli soldiers who have converted through military conversion courts from having their conversions overturned. The measure would force all state agencies — including rabbinic courts, the chief rabbis of cities and other Orthodox marriage registrars — to accept the converts as Jews.

"These soldiers are risking their lives for our security and this is the minimal recognition of gratitude that they deserve," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who voted for the bill, said following its approval.

Shas Chairman Eli Yishai tried to halt the vote.

"I appeal to you from the bottom of my heart, please think twice on whether to pass a bill after which I do not know what will follow, where it will lead," he urged Knesset members. "Please show responsibility and pull it off the table, allow the chief rabbi of Israel to finish this technical matter."

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has formed a committee to study religious ways that would allow him to approve the conversions.

Last September, a state prosecutor argued before Israel’s Supreme Court that conversions of Israeli soldiers by the military rabbinate are not valid. The court hearing was addressing the refusal of town and city rabbis to register converts for marriage.

About 4,500 soldiers, the majority of them women, have converted to Judaism while in the Israeli military.

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