Several Israeli Defense Forces conscripts have recently reported (Hebrew) that they have ordered to appear in a ceremony where they were told they need to undergo a giur (conversion to Judaism) and that the IDF would graciously provide them with this service. All of the conscripts are defined by the Israeli Interior Ministry as either Christians or lacking religious affiliation.
The IDF said in response that the purpose of the ceremony is to “strengthen the feeling of belonging of immigrant soldiers and their children to the State of Israel and the IDF.” The military admitted the conscripts are forced to participate: “the soldiers who answer to the criteria are invited to an orientation ceremony about the [giur] course, a ceremony to which the soldier must report, so as to have the ability to take a reasoned decision about his willingness to participate in the plan. A soldier who decides at the end of the ceremony to give up the course will not be invited to the next conference and the [conversion] process regarding him will be halted. Should a soldier decide to participate in the plan, but would [later] decide to disengage, he would have the right to do so at any time.”
While Israel promotes itself as a democracy, even a liberal one, it is essential to understand that this is simply not the case when it comes to personal and religious rights in Israel. While a citizen of a Western country is identified by his citizenship, the concept of citizenship is an afterthought in Israel. As far as the Israeli government and courts are concerned, there are no Israelis: attempts to be defined as such are stricken down time and again. The Interior Ministry uses the millet system, inherited from the Ottomans, as the basis of organizing society.
What is a millet? In Ottoman times, persons were organized not by their national group (nationalism was in its infancy in the Middle East at the time), but by the religious group they belonged to. They were defined as Sunni, Shi’ite, Orthodox Christians, or Jews (and various other groups); and each group had its religious leader and courts. A Jew would be answerable to the Jewish community and its courts for much of the aspects of his or her life.
The British left the system pretty much in place, as did Israel. If a Jew wants to marry in Israel, he has to do so through the rabbinical courts. A Muslim would have to go through a Sharia court (yes – Israel law implements Sharia), and a Christian through one of the various Christian courts. This has one major advantage, as far as Israel is concerned: as there’s no option of civil marriage, there’s no chance of miscegenation (“nisuei ta’arovet”, in Hebrew): no Jew can marry a non-Jew in Israel. And no Christian may marry a Muslim, etc. There is a loophole: Israel is beholden to some international treaties, so if you marry someone you can’t legally marry in Israel abroad, the government will – in most cases, gay couples need not apply – recognize your marriage.
Then came the great emigration wave from the former Soviet Union and put a monkey wrench in the system. The Jewishness of a large number of the emigrants is dubious. The Law of Return considers anyone who has a Jewish grandparent as a Jew for emigration purposes – but the rabbis do not. The numbers are uncertain, but hundreds of thousands of emigrants from the Soviet Union, and their children, are considered either as Christians or religiously unaffiliated.
These are the people the IDF is trying to convert. It does so out of belief – defined by former general Elazar Stern, now a member of Knesset for the Yesh Atid party – that “a Jewish soldier is inherently a better soldier.” Such a concept would cause generals from Julius Caesar through Genghis Khan and Heinz Guderian to raise an eyebrow, but is becoming increasingly common in the rapidly Jewified IDF.
It’s important to note that the IDF is interested in converting soldiers – but only if it sees them as “lost Jews.” It wouldn’t dare to demand a conversion from Israel’s native born Muslims, Druze or Christians – because it knows this will drive them into draft avoidance. It only tries to save the souls of those deemed “not Jewish enough” in the Jewish state. Unlike the Druze, Christians or even Muslim soldiers, those soldiers have no community to back them – as witnessed by the silence of the so-called “Russian” party of Avigdor Liberman, incidentally the Defense Minister.
It goes like this. The IDF receives from the Interior Ministry information about the religious affiliation of the conscripts, and assuming they “fit the criteria” – they have a Jewish parent or grandparent, yet they are considered to be either Christians or religiously unaffiliated – it makes them an offer they can hardly refuse. The soldier is ordered to show up in a ceremony, where he is told he is a second-class Jew but not to worry – the IDF is here to redeem him. His presence in this ceremony is obligatory and refusal to attend can lead to a military trial and imprisonment. His participation in the following course, i..e. the conversion process itself, is the default; he has to give express notice that he does not wish to participate. In technical terms, this is opt-out: you’re in unless you take specific action to abort.
What would happen to him if he refuses? The IDF says there are no consequences. Few soldiers would accept it at face value. They might suspect that their file has been quietly marked, and that this mark would be held against them should they want to go to officer school or upgrade their security clearance. Why didn’t you want to become a Jew? As someone whose commanders tried to pressure him into going to officer school (the writer is a proud private first class, ret.) I remember well the meaning of standing your ground against the army. Does anyone actually think soldiers arrive at the conversion course with anything resembling free will?
Try to imagine the scandal that would erupt if the French army would summon Jewish soldiers to a conversion to Catholicism course, informing them they may certainly refuse but that a good Frenchmen is a Catholic Frenchman, and that the course is intended to strengthen the bonds between the Jewish soldiers and the French army and Republic. Does that sound ludicrous to you? Well, that’s because this is the difference between a democratic country and a Jewish one.
Does it sound grotesque? That’s because our forefathers were once in a very similar movie, and found out the hard way it’s difficult to walk out. It seems someone in the IDF forgot what it means to be Jewish. (Which makes me bless once more that moment when an angry IDF Spokesman officer informed me that you are disrespectful of the army, the Jewish state and the Jewish religion (in March 2012))
And one final, tragic point: The soldiers who find themselves dragged into a conversion course may later find it was all in vain. The government will recognize their conversion, it promises. But the person who will decide whether you are a good enough Jew to marry in Israel will, in the end, be an ultra-Orthodox rabbi.