Rotem, haredi MKs argue over IDF conversion bill

Israel Beiteinu MK says still determined to pass legislation despite praising Ovadia Yosef's ruling that recognized army conversions.

Rotem 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
Rotem 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
Members of the Knesset Law Committee loudly debated on Tuesday whether the IDF conversion bill proposed by Israel Beiteinu MKs was still necessary after Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar ruled last week that army conversions were legal.
Amar’s decision followed a halachic ruling to that effect by Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
RELATED:Yated metes out cautious criticism at Yosef, AmarOvadia Yosef declares military conversions kosher
Committee chairman David Rotem, one of the bill’s initiators, praised Yosef’s ruling officially recognizing the conversions of thousands of soldiers. However, he said he was still determined to pass the legislation, which would give the IDF conversion process legal independence from the Chief Rabbinate.
“I intend to continue legislating the bill so that no one will be able to cast another cloud [of doubt] in the future on the legality of these conversions,” he told the committee.
The issue of the IDF conversions came up during a High Court hearing several months ago involving four haredi marriage registrars who refused to register prospective couples in cases where at least one partner had converted in a state-administered civilian or military conversion court.
During the hearing, the state’s representative, Yochi Gnessin, stunned the court by informing it that none of the military conversions were legal because the rabbinate had not signed the converts’ conversion certificates after the military courts had approved their conversions.
At first it appeared that the problem was only a matter of oversight. However, it soon emerged that the rabbinate was unwilling to sign the certificates and that it was calling into question the legality of the conversions.
One reason for this was that Amar had come under heavy pressure from Ashkenazi haredim, many of whom oppose the state- and army-administered conversions because of doubts over whether the converts intended to maintain a religious lifestyle at the time of their conversion.
Amar appointed a committee of three rabbis to investigate the military conversions. On Friday, they presented their report to the Sephardi chief rabbi at a meeting with Yosef, who then issued his ruling approving the conversions.
Following that, Amar ordered Rabbi Raffi Dayan, who is in charge of certificates in the Chief Rabbinate, to issue the appropriate authorizations.
The committee also reportedly recommended making changes in current IDF conversion procedures, which Yosef wrote “should take place.”
In the final analysis, neither the MKs nor the public have seen the committee’s recommendations.
Nevertheless, Rotem is under pressure to shelve his proposed legislation on the basis of these documents.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Rotem’s dispute was mainly with the haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ).
However, the two parties do not agree with each other. Given Yosef’s halachic ruling, Shas agrees that the IDF conversions are halachicly acceptable, but does not want secular legislation to determine halachic matters, and therefore opposes the law.
Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev accused Rotem of drafting a bill to further his party’s political ambitions. He said IDF conversions could only be acceptable if an agreement were worked out between the army and the Chief Rabbinate and, at minimum, the chief army chaplain fulfilled the requirements of a candidate for a city rabbi position.
Rabbi Haim Druckman, who heads the state-administered conversion courts, said he also opposed the bill.
“Now that Yosef has approved the conversions, there is no reason for concern or doubt about them,” he said. “From now on, anyone who undergoes conversion in the army will receive a conversion certificate.”
Druckman argued that there had never actually been a halachic problem with the IDF conversions in the first place. The person who had rung the alarm bells was Gnessin, and she had been referring to a legal problem – that is, that the rabbinate had not signed the conversion certificates – and not a halachic one.
All that has been solved now, he continued; Gnessin herself informed the court that the conversion certificates were being signed.
“We should praise Yosef and Amar,” said Druckman. “It doesn’t matter what the committee recommended. The fact is that the converts received their certificates. A law is not the solution to the problem.”
Despite imploring Amar to rectify the “technicality” of the absent signatures speedily, and initiating his bill when the chief rabbi failed to do so, Rotem was in no rush on Tuesday to have his committee vote on the bill. “This is a serious topic that demands serious debate,” he said.
Representatives of the military conversion process noted the anguish experienced by past and present converts in the IDF, who for some five months had been in painful uncertainty of their Jewish status until Yosef’s decision. To that, Rotem reiterated that “the IDF conversions are halachic, and always were.”
Addressing the fear expressed by the bill’s critics, including Druckman, that it would create two classes of conversions in Israel – since the military one would not be accepted as valid by some marriage registrars – Rotem noted that his bill would establish that the rabbis who conducted the conversions would have the power to register the converts for marriage. He also expressed his aspiration that the bill would include a clause giving the state the power to fire marriage registrars – a less viable solution since only the committee for appointing rabbinic judges has that power.
Rotem also expressed concern that Yosef’s and Amar’s endorsement of the past conversions was dependent on the implementation of the advisory committee’s recommendations to modify the military process – a claim denied by Dayan, who brought as evidence the fact that Amar had already approved the conversions.
Rotem and others demanded that Dayan present the Knesset with the full recommendations to get a better idea of where things stood as far as the Chief Rabbinate’s updated attitude toward the IDF conversions.