Missionaries in Uniform

It's a good sign that the army has pledged to stop 'recommending' that non-Jewish soldiers take conversion courses. In this way the army will help preserve freedom of conscience

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

The army’s promise that it will stop forcing soldiers who aren’t recognized as Jewish under Jewish law to attend explanatory seminars for conversion courses and courses in strengthening Jewish identity is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t enough. The change in policy was announced this week at a High Court of Justice hearing on a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel for Lt. Stanislav Yurovsky.

Under the army’s policy in existence for more than 10 years, soldiers who are immigrants or children of immigrants and registered as having no religion must attend seminars run by the organization Nativ. Refusing to attend a seminar is considered refusing to obey an order.

Only at the end of the seminar, after an interview in which the soldiers have been required to explain why they don’t want to convert, can they sign a form waiving participation in the conversion courses. Every year, a few thousand soldiers are thought to have been forced to attend such seminars.

This intervention by the army in soldiers’ beliefs shouldn’t be treated lightly. This is an organized, systematic campaign that begins when the soldier enters the army and continues throughout his military service.

Lt. Yurovsky said his commanders would tell him every few weeks that he had to attend the explanatory seminar, and their main argument in favor of conversion was that “Jews have it better here.” Other soldiers said the invitation to the seminar proved to be an opening for comments about how they weren’t Jewish enough.

The fact that soldiers “aren’t forced” to take the course is nothing but sanctimonious hypocrisy. It’s hard to ignore a “recommendation” by people in authority, especially in a hierarchical organization like the army.

At first, senior officers rejected all arguments against the effort to persuade soldiers to convert and didn’t see anything wrong with the army’s intervention in religious matters. This position changed only due to the High Court petition and the justices’ criticism of the army’s approach during the hearings. Now we must hope this awakening will trickle down and influence other issues as well, like the rabbis’ excessive involvement in drafting ultra-Orthodox young men, the army’s mixed-gender service order and the application of elements of the religious-Zionist worldview to all soldiers.

The army has no right to intervene in matters of belief, which are the basis of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. It’s not its job to persuade soldiers to convert. The requisite next step is to forbid any involvement with conversion in the Israel Defense Forces.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.