Knesset to hold hearings on validity of IDF conversions

Plesner, Rotem trade barbs over pending legislation; State Control Committee also slated to convene on the issue.

September 12, 2010 00:58
4 minute read.
Yohanan Plesner

YOHANAN PLESNER. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee will hold a hearing later this month to discuss the petition being heard in the High Court of Justice questioning whether marriage authorities can reject the legitimacy of IDF conversions.

MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) requested the hearing after attorney Yochi Gnessin, an official from the State Prosecutor’s office, told the High Court on Monday that there was “a problem” with the army conversions.

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Speaking during arguments concerning a petition filed by Itim – The Jewish Life Information Center to rescind a decision by haredi Rabbi Avraham Sherman that invalidated conversions carried out by Haim Druckman, a national religious rabbi who headed the State Conversion Authority from 2002 to 2008, Gnessin reportedly told the justices that the approximately 4,500 conversions carried out by national religious rabbis as part of an IDF program were invalid unless authorized by the haredi- dominated Chief Rabbinate.

Following the court session, Plesner requested that both the Knesset committee and its Subcommittee for Manpower Issues convene to discuss the issue, as well as to discuss the possibility of shoring up IDF conversions by anchoring them in legislation. The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is expected to convene on September 21, at which time the subject will be brought up for debate.

It will not be the only committee to jump on the topic.

The State Control Committee, chaired by MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima), was also slated to convene immediately after Rosh Hashana to discuss Gnessin’s statement.

“The prosecutor’s answer to the High Court of Justice is nothing less than scandalous,” Hasson said. “The conversions of thousands of soldiers are now in doubt. The state and the Chief Rabbinate must recognize all of the conversions that were carried out by the IDF. I intend to convene the committee for a special hearing in order to clarify the questions and to ensure the legitimacy of IDF conversions.”

Plesner, referring to the party behind pending legislation regarding conversions, called it “the moment of truth for Israel Beiteinu.”

“We will all discover if their commitment to thousands of immigrant soldiers, who have linked their fates with that of the people of Israel, is canceled out due to non-Zionist political deals they cooked up with the haredi parties,” the lawmaker said.

But Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem, who is spearheading the conversion legislation, as well as a bill on marriage laws, cast doubt on Gnessin’s reported statements, as well as on the intent of the Kadima MKs.

“I am not certain that what was published was [actually] said,” Rotem explained. “I know Yochi Gnessin, and she tries to be as lenient as possible regarding conversion. Israel Beiteinu has been trying to relax the laws for a long time so that the rabbi who converts can also later perform the convert’s marriage.”

Turning to the charges leveled by Plesner and Hasson, Rotem said they “gave in to the Reform and Conservative movements and voted against our bills,” and in so doing “abandoned the IDF soldiers and chose instead to curry favor with those two movements.”

“Israel Beiteinu’s conversion bill would ground the current system of IDF conversions in law, and also ensure that conversions will not be able to be canceled,” he said. “But Kadima, out of populist motives, attacked the bill. We, on the other hand, will [address] the problem, not through populism but by actually solving it.”

Plesner said Rotem’s bill would only strengthen the Chief Rabbinate. Legislation that could be advanced, he said, would oblige the rabbinate to recognize the special religious court established by the IDF.

The IDF has argued that it always acts with the agreement of the Chief Rabbinate, but Gnessin’s reported comments seem to indicate that the rabbinate has other ideas, and both inside and outside the Knesset, reactions poured in on Tuesday over her remarks.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky called her comments “negligent and irresponsible.”

“The conversion of IDF soldiers in the framework of the IDF Chaplaincy’s Nativ program is a completely valid conversion approved by Rabbi Haim Druckman,” Sharansky said. “Nativ is the biggest achievement of conversion efforts in Israel and the Jewish Agency will continue to support it together with the government.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the head of the Israel Reform movement and a past director of the Israel Religious Action Center, its litigation arm, was irate over Gnessin’s statements and said they illustrated Israel’s abandonment of soldiers who seek to officially join the fold of Judaism.

“For over 20 years, the state prosecutor has provided a tailwind for the extreme and severe approach of rabbinical establishment officials who refuse to recognize the Jewish and Zionist challenge in opening the gates of Judaism to olim,” Kariv said. “The doubt cast by the government representative regarding the conversion of male and female soldiers sent by the same government to serve in the army is another stage in the despicable saga of the conversion crisis.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, the head of Hiddush – For Religious Freedom and Equality, said that “the state’s position is undoubtedly scandalous, and we must battle it. But together with that, my opinion is that the solution is not to force, through the court system, modern Orthodox judges and haredi municipal rabbis to accept conversions they view as unacceptable. The solution is to eliminate the monopoly that the state affords the Orthodox rabbinate, which is increasingly more extreme.”

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