Defying High Court, the Israeli Army Still Presses non-Jewish Soldiers to Convert

Despite criticism from the High Court of Justice, the Israel Defense Forces is pressuring soldiers who aren’t recognized as Jews according to Jewish law to take courses to prepare them for conversion and bolster their Jewish identity.

The army's Education Corps and military rabbinate have a list of soldiers who they consider potential converts. They approach these soldiers’ direct commanders, exposing the fact that the soldiers are not Jewish.

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In 2018, the IDF announced that it would stop forcing conscripts and career soldiers to appear at rallies held by an organization that readied them for conversion. This was the result of a petition filed by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. At the hearing, High Court justices voiced sharp criticism of the army’s decade-old policy, under which soldiers who were immigrants or the children of immigrants registered as having no religion were forced to attend these rallies. Refusal to attend was regarded as insubordination, and soldiers reported that this demand violated their privacy and their right to freedom of conscience and religion, as well as humiliating them.

This week, a veteran female IDF officer was summoned to a talk with a senior commander in the unit she serves in. During their conversation, the commander told her that he’d been approached by the Education Corps, which informed him that she had the potential to attend courses designed to lead her to a conversion. The officer, who is married to an Israeli man, was furious that the army had directly approached her commander on this matter, since she had never asked for details on conversion from any military agency. She said that she had no intention of participating in such a course.

The officer wanted to know how her commander had learned that she was not recognized as a Jew according to Jewish law, and why the army thought she had the potential to become a convert even though she had never expressed a wish to do so. The commander noted that the information had come from the Manpower Directorate, and that he was required to inform her about the course and its dates. After the conversation, the officer received a personal message from the Education Corps, inviting her to a preparation course for conversion.

IDF soldiers attend a conversion course, Jerusalem, November 6, 2008Daniel Bar-On

A legal adviser which helped the officer noted that she has a significant position and a strong standing in the IDF, which allowed her to oppose her commanders and the system, but what happens with conscripts and career soldiers who lack such power? What if they’re too young? Can they stand up to their commander and say they don’t want to? Will this be considered insubordination? What if the commander is religious and supports conversions, opposed to marriage between Jews and non-Jews? How will this affect the promotion of someone who refuses to cooperate?

Violating freedom of religion

The IDF began summoning conscript and career soldiers who are not recognized as Jews to such courses in 2000. According to the IDF website, the course, provided by the Nativ Center for Identity and Conversion, is intended to allow every soldier, male or female, according to their choice, to bolster their Zionist and Jewish identity and allow them to prepare for conversion while in the army.”

The basic course deals with one’s “personal-Israeli-Zionist-Jewish identity, while taking a broad view of the history of the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the Land of Israel.” Following this course, soldiers attend a first seminar in the conversion process, lasting three to four weeks, during which they can expect “to obtain a deeper familiarity with the Jewish world in all its aspects, and a deeper knowledge of a Jewish lifestyle, prayers, laws, customs, etc.”

In 2018, 1,925 conscripts and career soldiers attended the basic Nativ course. 3,472 continued to the more advanced course. The courses are funded by the Ministry of Defense and the Jewish Agency, to an estimated tune of seven million shekels ($2 million) a year. Pressure to attend these courses was subject to criticism in the past, since expecting someone to change their religion is a violation of their freedom of religion and shows a lack of respect to the identity and culture of soldiers who are not Jewish.

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In June of 2019, chief education officer Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Feiereisen said that there was a lot of prejudice about conversion, especially about army conversions, which causes great distress in finding observant families which follow these soldiers during the conversion process.

The matter reached the High Court of Justice in June 2018, following a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, in the name of 1st Lt. Stanislav Yurovski. Yurovski complained that his commanders had notified him several times that he had to attend a Nativ course, even though he’d said a few times that he wasn’t interested in converting. His commanders argued that conversion would improve his life in Israel, noting that “it’s better here for Jews.” Following the petition and the judges’ criticism, the IDF changed its policy.

The IDF said in response that “The Nativ course is intended for soldiers, and its aim is to sort out and strengthen their Israeli-Jewish identity, including the option of conversion. Every year the IDF holds rallies, to which soldiers are invited, providing them with information about the course and the process. The IDF encourages them to attend in order to expand the potential of soldiers who are exposed to this opportunity to undergo conversion. According to current policy, attendance is voluntary. Information about the course is provided to soldiers by their direct commanders, while limiting the number of people exposed to this private information. They are told that participation is a choice they can make. This policy was presented to judges of the High Court at the hearing of the petition, which was ultimately struck.”