Interior Minister Aryeh Deri was accused of racism on Tuesday after a tirade against immigrants from the former Soviet Union, in which he said many of them were not Jewish and he regretted that they had come to Israel.
Deri, who is head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said he would demand to be minister of immigrant absorption in the next government, and vowed to change what he said was the current situation in which one cannot walk around in the ministry “unless you speak Russian.”
“Today, you can’t go around the corridors of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry unless you speak Russian,” Deri said. “Enough. They should start speaking French and Amharic and other languages.”
Speaking at an election campaign event in Ashdod, Deri also took a jab at Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, an immigrant from Moldova in the former Soviet Union, whose faction has been in control of the Immigration Absorption Ministry for years.
“The ministry will no longer exist to serve immigrants from the Soviet Union,” Deri declared. “It will be for those who make aliyah from France, and will be a home for Jews from Ethiopia.”
Deri threatened to change the Law of Return, which stipulates that any individual who has at least one Jewish grandparent, or has converted in a recognized court outside the State of Israel, may apply for citizenship.
“Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of Israelis who immigrated from the former Soviet Union in accordance with the Law of Return aren’t Jews according to halacha [Jewish religious law] and they are here, to my great regret,” he said.
The Chief Rabbinate only recognizes the immigrants as Jews if they have a Jewish mother or have been converted to Judaism under Orthodox authorities approved by the Chief Rabbinate.
“They are disturbed that the Interior Ministry performs DNA tests on immigrants from the former Soviet Union and makes it hard for them to make aliyah. I plead guilty as charged,” Deri said, referring to an accusation made by Liberman earlier Tuesday that his ministry conducts such tests.
Deri later clarified that no such DNA tests are in fact performed and said that he doesn’t plan to introduce them.
There are some 400,000 people, mostly from the former Soviet Union, living in Israel who are not considered Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate. Such immigrants and their children are often caught a bureaucratic void, unable to marry in state-sanctioned weddings or to enjoy other basic rights.
Liberman — whose party, like Deri’s, is predicted by polls to have difficulty winning enough votes to enter the next Knesset — responded by saying he would become interior minister and “stop the racism and discrimination pushed by the ultra-Orthodox establishment against immigrants from the former Soviet Union.”
Liberman’s party member MK Oded Forer had a more strongly worded reaction, saying he was “embarrassed to hear [Deri’s] venomous racism against people who realize the Zionist vision and settle the Land of Israel.”
Forer called on Deri to “apologize to the millions of Israeli citizens who made aliyah from the former Soviet Union, those who joined the army and died in service, the doctors and nurses who save lives every days in hospitals.”
MK Yoel Razvozov of the Blue and White party was also among other public figures who criticized Deri and called him a racist.