IDF to Stop Forcing non-Jewish Soldiers to Attend Conversion Seminars

Shift comes in the wake of a High Court petition challenging the army’s policy which views failure to attend seminar as ‘defying an order’

Soldiers who have undergone conversion courses in the IDF.
Daniel Bar-On / Gini

The Israeli army will stop forcing soldiers who are not recognized as Jews according to Orthodox Jewish law to attend informational seminars about its conversion course.

The state prosecutor informed the High Court of Justice on Monday of the policy change, effective next week, in response to a petition submitted by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel on behalf of Lt. Stanislav Yurovsky.

Yurovsky testified that every few weeks his commanders told him that he had to attend the informational course, even though he had informed them on several occasions that he was not interested in converting. His commanders asserted that converting would improve his life in Israel on the grounds that “the Jews have it better here.”

For over a decade the army’s policy has been to require immigrant soldiers and the children of immigrants who are not defined as Jewish  (and listed in their state ID cards as lacking a religion) to attend the conversion seminar given by the Nativ organization.

Declining to attend the seminar is tantamount to refusing an order. Yurovsky and other soldiers who turned to ACRI said that the Israel Defense Forces’ demand violates their privacy, their freedom of religion and conscience, and humiliates them.

The army at first rejected ACRI’s demand, and claimed that the IDF does not pressure soldiers to convert. In the wake of the High Court petition, the IDF dropped obligatory participation in the seminars, replacing this with obligatory attendance, on the grounds that attendance was necessary in order to “make an informed decision” on whether or not to participate in the conversion course.

Now the army has gone one step further and dropped that requirement as well – effective next week. 

Until now, from the moment a new recruit arrives at the recruitment office, the army inundates him or her “with repeated offers to deepen their Israeli and Jewish identity and for them to convert during their service,” according to the petition.

“These offers do not stop, even when they declare that they do not want to convert,” continues the petition.

The details of those soldiers are sent by the manpower directorate to their units and their commanders, and the proposals to the soldiers continue throughout their service. The soldiers in the seminars receive an explanation about Judaism, conversion and its advantages in Israel. 

Soldiers are entitled to decline to participate in the conversion program only after attending the information seminar, undergoing an interview in which they are required to explain why they are not interested in converting, and signing a statement to that effect. 

ACRI attorney Tal Hassin said that the IDF should be prohibited from even suggesting to soldiers that they convert to Judaism. “Pressure and coercion have many faces, and therefore it should be forbidden for the army to approach soldiers with offers to go take Nativ’s conversion course,” he said.

“The army is a rigid hierarchical framework. No small measure of grit is needed for a soldier to dare to refuse the offers of his commanders regarding his personal matters.”

Hassin added, “There are different ways to inform soldiers about the army conversion course, including websites or a one-time conversation at the recruitment center. A policy whose substance is pressuring soldiers to convert to Judaism is beyond the pale.”

High Court justices were critical of the army’s policy in a hearing last month. “It can’t be a coercive framework,” said Justice Hanan Melcer, who added that if a new recruit says in a one-on-one conversation that he or she is not interested in converting to Judaism, that should be enough.