Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on Monday attacked Israeli Reform leader Gilad Kariv, apparently suggesting the Reform rabbi was seeking to convert illegal African immigrants and infiltrators en masse to Judaism, thus granting them Israeli citizenship.
At the start of the weekly ultra-Orthodox Shas faction meeting, party leader Deri also personally criticized US Union of Reform Judaism leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs — calling Jacobs “This man who doesn’t live here” — accusing him of being supportive of intermarriage.
Kariv, in response, branded Deri “a liar,” citing court rulings banning conversions to Judaism of those residing illegally in the country along with internal ministry guidelines.
Noting that as interior minister he is a gatekeeper on immigration, Deri maintained the conversion bill — approved by ministers last week, but shelved for six months amid a Diaspora uproar on Friday — was an effort to stem the tide of illegal immigration in Israel, alleging that Israel’s Law of Return that grants citizenship to Jews and those of Jewish descent was at risk of abuse by migrants seeking to stay in the country.
“If I recognize every private Orthodox or Reform conversion, there will be no end,” Deri said, tying it to the “infiltrator problem.”
“Within a year or two, they will all convert [if private conversions are accepted],” he added. “Is that the path we want to go down?”
Deri proceeded to link Kariv to the immigrant issue, accusing him of having political aspirations to join the opposition Zionist Union party, and citing his involvement in efforts to aid the African refugees. Kariv ran in 2012 and 2015 in the party primaries for Labor, which along with the Hatnuah party makes up the Zionist Union faction.
Kariv “boasts that he wants to enshrine their [illegal migrants’] status in Israel. This is the same man who wants the keys to establish who converts here,” said Deri.
“I leave it to your imagination what will happen here in a year or two if the keys to the Law of Return… are in these people’s hands,” he added of Kariv and Jacobs.
Kariv said Deri’s remarks were “shameful lies” and tantamount to “defamation.”
“Minister Deri is a liar, who it seems forgot that the Torah commanded us to avoid lies,” Kariv told The Times of Israel.
“Beyond the fact that the details he mentioned in my personal case are simply wrong and ‘fake news’ — this is the less important issue. Minister Deri knows there is no conversion of asylum seekers in Israel,” said Kariv. “The Supreme Court ruled that a man cannot convert if he is residing illegally in Israel. And he knows that the Reform and Conservative Movements committed in court to a policy of conversion under which we do not convert foreign workers or tourists or asylum-seekers. He also knows that the Supreme Court allowed the Interior Ministry to set clear criteria that would prevent the abuse of conversion for citizenship.”
Deri “wants to hide the simple fact that all that interests the ultra-Orthodox parties is giving the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on conversion,” added Kariv.
In his remarks, Deri mounted a defense of his actions in pressing the government to pull its agreement to the Western Wall mixed-gender plaza last week and in support of the now-shelved conversion bill, saying petitions to Israel’s High Court by pluralistic NGOs on both issues had left the government little choice but to act.
Both the proposed legislation to withdraw recognition of private conversions and the cabinet backtrack on the Western Wall section — after approving the deal in January 2016 — have drawn widespread criticism from US Jewish organizations.
Saying he was preserving the Jewish character of the state, Deri also paraphrased Jacobs as saying intermarriage is not a “disease.”
“This man who doesn’t live here, what does he want? That I give him the keys to the Law of Return?” Deri asked in reference to Jacobs.
Jacobs has in the past encouraged outreach to interfaith couples, urging others to “stop speaking about intermarriage as a disease — it’s not.” In a 2014 op-ed, Jacobs wrote that “Falling in love with someone who is not Jewish is not a failure of Jewish commitment at a time when young adult lives are just beginning.”
The interior minister said he was willing to withdraw the conversion bill if pluralistic NGOs pull their court petitions on conversions.
Deri also slammed what he called an “incitement campaign” against the ultra-Orthodox in recent weeks amid the fierce controversy.
“There is an incitement campaign of lies against the ultra-Orthodox that is being led by interested parties who want to break up the coalition,” said Deri. In comments directed at his coalition partner Avigdor Liberman, he said there was “misinformation” about the ultra-Orthodox and denied they are trying to turn Israel into a halachic [Jewish legal] state.
“We don’t want to change anything,” Deri said, advocating for the religious status-quo.
Liberman — who opposed both the conversion bill and the government’s handling of the Western Wall controversy — last week described the parallel efforts, at the prodding of the ultra-Orthodox parties, as an attempt “to transform Israel from a Zionist state to a halachic [Jewish legal] state.”