Bills Allowing IDF Conversions Pass First Test in Early Knesset Reading

The bills would allow IDF chief rabbi to confirm army conversions in the future without the approval of the Chief Rabbinate.

The Knesset moved forward on two bills yesterday that would recognize the validity of conversions to Judaism conducted in the Israel Defense Forces. The vote marks a defeat for ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition.

The bills, which passed in a preliminary reading, would also confirm the authority of the IDF chief rabbi to confirm army conversions in the future without the approval of the Chief Rabbinate.

Yesterday's vote followed recent failures to reach a compromise. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acceded to a request by ultra-Orthodox coalition partner Shas to defer a cabinet vote on the issue.

This was meant to give Shas officials and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar a chance to resolve the matter with Yisrael Beiteinu, which sponsored the bills. Netanyahu advised Shas chief Eli Yishai, who is also interior minister, that he would support the legislation in a Knesset vote.

Netanyahu said at the time that the technical issue of recognizing IDF conversions could be resolved by Amar in a manner that would maintain the Chief Rabbinate's status. At Sunday's cabinet meeting, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, said the issue had been "fudged" up to now, and he would not allow this to continue.

After the vote, Lieberman spoke in conciliatory tones at a news conference. "It's clear to everyone that there is a difference in approach between Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas, but everyone needs to live with one another. One party cannot take the lead in accomplishments in legislation and bar another party from passing laws."

He said he had been following the conversion issue since 1989. "I want to break the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate on the subject of conversion," he said. Amar, who is in charge of the state conversion system, said he would relinquish responsibility for conversions if the proposed IDF conversion legislation becomes law.

Yesterday's vote on the two companion bills was 75 in favor and 18 against. Among those in favor was Netanyahu and other Likud members, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labor, Kadima and Meretz. Members of the ultra-Orthodox parties as well as the religious members of National Union voted no.

Shortly before the vote, after the ultra-Orthodox parties announced their intention to vote against the bills, the governing coalition dispensed with coalition discipline and gave its MKs freedom to vote as they chose, in an effort to avert a coalition crisis.

The bills' future depends on whether Yisrael Beiteinu manages to move the process forward, or whether it is buried by Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition.

The Knesset House Committee must now decide if the legislation will be referred to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, chaired by MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ), where passage would be promoted vigorously.

Otherwise, the legislation might go to the Interior and Environment Committee, headed by Shas, where it would be expected to stall. A third option would be consideration by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which would also be not expected to advance the bills.

During the debate, MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ) said the bills would split the Jewish people by creating more than one path to conversion, a sentiment seconded by Shas' Yishai.

MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi ) a sponsor of the measure, urged a vote in favor, saying he felt an obligation to the 4,600 soldiers who have been converted in the IDF over the past decade and the more than 800 soldiers currently undergoing an army conversion.

Lieberman said the legislative process could be completed within weeks, and warned that he would not allow the process to stall. He acknowledged that there would be changes to the initial draft, but the substance would not be altered.

MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ) dismissed Lieberman's optimism, saying that whenever Shas has strongly opposed legislation, Netanyahu has given in to the party's demands. After the vote in a preliminary reading, however, Netanyahu, who voted in favor, said the IDF's conversion program was working successfully.

"It's important that these soldiers be converted according to halakha [Jewish religious law]," he said, adding that he would not let the soldiers' interests be harmed. "These soldiers endanger their lives for our security and this is the minimum expression of our appreciation that they deserve."

He said he would work for a solution to the conversion issue that satisfies every party involved.