Update on IDF Conversion Law

from Natan Sharansky, Chair of the Executive, Jewish Agency for Israel:

Dear Friends,

Last week, a bill dealing with conversion in the IDF passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset. The bill known as the Military Conversion Bill and authored by Israel Beitenu MKs David Rotem and Robert Ilatov, has prompted heated debate and political wrangling among the government coalition partners.

The Jewish Agency’s position on this bill is clear: we fully support its passage into law because it puts to rest some of the doubts cast recently on conversions conducted in the IDF and supports and protects the Nativ project.

Through the Nativ conversion program, housed and funded by the Jewish Agency, the IDF offers a unique and crucial opportunity for soldiers during their army service to participate in an intensive eight-week course of study in Jewish identity.

The course gives an opportunity for a broad and deep study of the principles of Jewish identity and the meaning and practice of Judaism’s primary mitzvot. The final stage of the program, for those who choose to proceed, is preparation for conversion through the IDF rabbinate’s conversion courts.

The project has been a celebrated success. More than 1,000 men and women in the army undergo conversions each year, representing a significant percentage of the total number of conversions taking place in Israel annually.

In addition to funding from the government and the army, the Jewish Agency invests $1.5 million each year from our core budget together with our partners in the Diaspora. Another $1 million comes from the Genesis Fund. Discussions are currently underway with the army about expanding this program.

Recently, I invited Nochi Dankner, chairman of IDB, a well known Israeli businessman and philanthropist, to visit the Nativ program on the Kiryat Moriah campus in Jerusalem. He and his entourage were profoundly moved by the participants’ commitment and excitement about their Jewish studies and he suggested that even his own family and friends, all of whom were born Jewish, could benefit greatly from the caliber of the Jewish education provided in the course. At the end of his visit Nochi Dankner announced that the IDB group would contribute $350,000 to this crucial program, becoming the first Israeli philanthropist to join this very worthwhile program.

In recent weeks, we have seen concerted attempts to weaken the effectiveness of this project by undermining the independence of the IDF rabbinate from the office of the chief rabbinate, and calling into question the validity of the IDF conversions. It is this threat which prompted the hasty presentation of the Rotem-Ilatov bill to the Knesset plenum.

At the same time rumors have arisen in the Israeli press suggesting that in order to prevent strife between coalition members, a compromise deal is being developed that could bring about the simultaneous approval of both the Military Conversion Bill, which we support, and the earlier “Rotem bill” dealing with civilian conversion that we vehemently oppose in its current form.

I want to reiterate that the Prime Minister has stated emphatically that he is opposed to such a deal. You may recall that the Prime Minister stood up to the heated political pressure just a few months ago, and repeated his assurances on this issue to our Board of Governors meeting in October and in his public address to the General Assembly Plenary in New Orleans this past November.

In the meantime, we are nearing the end of the six-month moratorium during which all sides of the conversion debate refrained from unilateral steps through courts or legislation. We are working diligently on all levels to extend this period in order to have enough time to develop a compromise on this issue. Both the Reform and Conservative movements have already agreed to an extended moratorium, and together with Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser, we are looking for a similar commitment from the relevant political quarters.

I hope this update was useful and I assure you that we will keep you informed in real time regarding any new developments about this issue, which we believe is vital to the future unity and strength of the Jewish people.

With warm regards,

Natan Sharansky

[eJP note: As mentioned above, Nochi Dankner’s $350,000 gift to the Nativ program is a big deal. As the first Israeli philanthropist to support this program, it is hoped this will set the stage for broader support from the local Israeli community.]