2010 sees drop in applications for IDF conversions

IDF Manpower Directorate says decline due to public uproar over Conversion Bill; overall, conversions are slightly up.

By JONAH MANDEL
June 1, 2011 02:33
3 minute read.
Witnesses testifying before the conversion panel.

311_state conversion panel. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

While the number of conversions in Israel rose slightly in 2010, there was a significant drop in the number of soldiers who signed up for the military’s Nativ conversion courses, according to data presented at the Knesset’s Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

According to Col. Orna Asoulin, who is in charge of manpower in the IDF Manpower Directorate, the reason there were 82 fewer soldiers in the Nativ course in 2010 than in 2009 (when some 800 took part), was the public uproar over the conversions.

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According to Muli Jesselsohn, director of the State Conversion Authority, 4,645 people converted in 2010. Of these, just over 1,800 were Ethiopians.

The rest represented a 17 percent rise among non-Ethiopian converts compared to the previous year. The number of Ethiopian converts dropped by 50%, but that was due to the decrease in the numbers of new immigrants from Ethiopia.

Rabbi Seth Farber, who heads ITIM – the Jewish Life Information Center, which advises approximately a thousand people a year on conversions – said there was a drop in governmental funding of NGOs dealing with conversions.

What the committee didn’t discuss, however, was the ongoing problem of the Interior Ministry in not recognizing Orthodox conversions from North America for Israeli citizenship, in line with the Chief Rabbinate’s policy of only accepting conversions conducted by some 10 regional courts of the Rabbinical Council of America.

As Farber noted, this creates a situation in which it is easier for a convert making aliya to receive Israeli citizenship if his or her conversion was in a recognized non-Orthodox framework.

Nearly two months ago, the same committee convened at the Chief Rabbinate to discuss the problem, where Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar announced that the rabbinate, along with the Interior Ministry, would within 40 days form clear guidelines to address the problem facing 20 such Orthodox converts who are currently not able to make aliya.

A few weeks ago ITIM filed a High Court of Justice petition against the Interior Ministry on the issue.

MK Danny Danon (Likud), chairman of the Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, addressed the topic by merely saying that Amar was out of the country and would be providing answers to the problem within two weeks.

This came as a surprise to representatives of the Jewish Agency as well as ITIM, who were led to understand prior to the meeting that the issue would be raised.

Farber, however, did briefly address the issue and said that of the 20 open cases of olim who underwent Orthodox conversions, only two had been resolved in the past few months.

Ethiopian-born MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima) took the opportunity to slam the state’s exceptions’ committee, which deals primarily with people who are not Israeli citizens but wish to convert – usually spouses of Israelis.

“I know of cases in which a person’s skin color – because they were black – kept them from going to the committee. It’s a bad committee, they don’t see a person as a person, and won’t examine their case,” he said.

Molla added that if he didn’t receive clear answers on the committee’s function, he’d turn to the Knesset’s State Control Committee.

Speaking after the committee, Farber rejected the military’s explanation for the drop in soldier- conversion applicants and said the IDF should take more efforts to explain the reality of the situation to the soldiers.

“If anything, what we saw in the past six months is that the government is totally behind the Nativ conversions,” he said.

It was Farber’s petition on a related issue over a year ago that opened the Pandora’s box of the haredi rabbinic attitude to the State Conversion Authority – and specifically to IDF conversions, which were heavily questioned by some Ashkenazi rabbis.

Amar, with the backing of senior Sephardi adjudicator Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, eventually ruled that the conversions were acceptable.


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