Bill to validate army conversions wins government backing

Coalition also mulls possibility of allowing Israelis to vote while abroad.

November 29, 2010 03:49
3 minute read.
David Rotem.

David Rotem 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )


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The Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday approved a private member’s bill submitted by the head of the Knesset Law Committee, MK David Rotem, and by MK Robert Ilatov (both from Israel Beiteinu) stating that all conversions conducted by army chaplains were valid.

The bill is aimed at putting an end to the question of the status of IDF conversions, after the issue erupted into a heated public controversy in September during a hearing on a petition in the High Court of Justice.

According to the bill, “The chief military chaplain is permitted to appoint military courts to deal with the conversion of soldiers. The decision of such a court to convert a soldier will serve as decisive proof of his Judaism.”

In the bill’s explanatory notes, the legislators wrote that “to erase all doubt regarding the validity of the IDF conversions, which have been unnecessarily questioned, and to remove the mist of uncertainty enveloping those who underwent the process and who are undergoing it now, this bill proposes to clearly and unequivocally determine that the conversions... are halachically valid. All the state’s institutions should recognize them and cast no doubt on them.”

It was the state that cast doubt on them and set off the furor in the first place.

The incident occurred during a hearing on a petition filed by Rabbi Seth Farber, head of ITIM: The Jewish-Life Information Center; Maj.-Gen. (res.) Eliezer Stern and others against the refusal of marriage registrars in four cities to register couple in cases where one of the partners was converted in a court not part of the Rabbinic Court system.

During a hearing on September 6, the state’s representative, attorney Yochi Gnessin, informed the court that none of the 4,500 conversions already conducted in the military conversion courts were valid. The state immediately issued a disclaimer to the statement and said Gnessin had been misquoted, but the damage was done.

Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar tried to douse the flames by upholding the army conversions.

But he later backtracked and the Chief Rabbinical Council appointed a committee of five rabbis to investigate the matter.

Rotem refused to wait. He submitted his private member’s bill on November 1 and explained that “all [military] conversions are kosher and impeccable.

I am sorry that due to pressure, there are those who cast doubt on the Judaism of hundreds of thousands of individuals who served in the IDF and risked their lives for the state.”

The wording of the ministerial committee’s decision regarding Rotem’s bill was different from the usual formulation in that it said the committee approved the bill for preliminary reading. Private member’s bills must be approved by the Knesset four times while government bills are approved only three times. The first approval for private member’s bills comes in preliminary reading before the Knesset plenum.

According to Amatzia Bar-On, the media adviser to Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, the committee approved the bill specifically for preliminary reading and not necessarily for the ensuing readings. This means the government could call on Rotem to make certain changes when his committee prepares the bill for first reading.

In another development, the committee sent a bill proposed by MK Ya’acov Katz (National Union) to the coalition’s “governing committee” for further discussion. The governing committee, which includes one member of each coalition faction, was established to deal with legislation affecting elections and the political power of the coalition factions.

Katz’s bill would grant the write to vote in national elections to anyone registered in the voter registration who has held a valid Israeli passport for at least 10 years. Although Katz wrote in his explanation attached to the bill that it was aimed at Israelis who happen to be out of the country on business on election day, it would also allow Israelis living abroad to vote.

Last February, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman informed their party factions that they would back legislation giving Israelis living abroad the right to vote. At the time, a private member’s bill initiated by Israel Beiteinu MKs Rotem and Alex Miller had already been submitted.

The bill was worded exactly like the current one.

However, the announcement at the time aroused strong opposition and Netanyahu backed down. The bill was also opposed in the coalition by Shas and the Labor Party. Each coalition party has the right of veto regarding bills that call for constitutional changes.

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