Editorial: A New Year’s insult to our converts

In a mind-boggling exercise a lawyer in the State Attorney’s Office, representing the State of Israel, has, this week of all weeks, insulted thousands of soldiers.

Haredi Soldiers 311 (photo credit: YAAKOV KATZ)
Haredi Soldiers 311
(photo credit: YAAKOV KATZ)
Before Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgement, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, Jews strive for self-improvement, especially in interpersonal relations.
Yet in a mind-boggling exercise in utter disregard for the feelings of others, a lawyer in the State Attorney’s Office, representing the State of Israel, has, this week of all weeks, insulted thousands of soldiers, present and past, who converted to Judaism during their stint in the IDF.
“Conversions are taking place, I don’t know for how long... without proper authorization,” attorney Yochi Gnessin told the High Court of Justice on Monday.
“It turns out that some sort of framework was set up which is not supervised in any way by the Chief Rabbinate,” added Gnessin, at a savage stroke casting unwarranted doubt on the Jewishness of at least 4,500 converts and their children.
Gnessin, whose self-professed ignorance could have been alleviated had she so much as performed a simple Google search, was referring to the NATIV program, first established in 2001. This offers IDF soldiers – mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were not Jewish but received Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return because they were related to Jew – a Jewish studies course. The program including “adoption” by a religious family, and eventually leads to conversion in IDF rabbinical conversion courts.
The rabbinic judges who serve on these courts are all Orthodox rabbis ordained by the Chief Rabbinate and many of them serve on “officially recognized” conversion courts as well. NATIV and the IDF conversion courts have been operating under the tacit, if not expressed, authorization of the Chief Rabbinate.
BY REJECTING the legitimacy of the NATIV program, the state attorney was essentially defending a small number of state employees – the haredi chief rabbis of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Rehovot and Rishon LeZion – who are being sued for refusing to register IDF converts for marriage in their respective cities because their conversions are deemed to be invalid.
In a perplexing role reversal, the State of Israel, via Gnessin, is now backtracking on its previous policy, which saw as a national priority the conversion of approximately 350,000 FSU immigrants and their offspring who are not Jewish. As Absorption Ministry officials put it in the State of Israel’s 2009 budget, “[Statefunded] preparation for conversion is aimed at answering the needs of the [non-Jewish FSU] immigrant and his desire to be a part of the Jewish people, for the purpose of absorption and integration in the community.”
Central to this pro-conversion policy was the desire to prevent intermarriage and foster cultural and religious unity.
Instead, the State Attorney’s Office has joined the forces of religious extremism which have already overrun the Chief Rabbinate.
This reversal is unfortunate, to put it mildly, since there are many contemporary Orthodox rabbis, like the ones who serve in the IDF’s conversion courts, who identify with the state’s goal of integration through conversion.
They take into consideration that most prospective converts have a Jewish father or some other familial tie with the Jewish people. Though not Jews according to Halacha, these people are considered “the seed of Israel” – zera Yisrael – which means they should be encouraged to convert.
These rabbis have also been more lenient with non- Jews who intend to remain in Israel and tie their destiny to the Jewish people, or who have shown their commitment to the Jewish people’s well-being through, say, IDF service.
Orthodoxy’s moderate voices, which strive to make Judaism accessible and relevant to as many Israelis as possible, should be heard. If not, pressure will build to change the present religious status quo, a move which will inevitably lead to unnecessary strife.
ON ROSH HASHANA eve, as Iran strides unimpeded toward a nuclear capability, Hamas consolidates its hold over Gaza and threatens stability in the West Bank and Hizbullah gains influence in Lebanon, we should be looking for ways to foster unity and improve relations among ourselves.
Rejecting the Jewishness of thousands of IDF converts is definitely not the way to kick off the new year.