Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday called for preventing “fake conversions” to Judaism, appearing to suggest asylum seekers and migrant workers from Africa would “overrun” Israel by undergoing non-Orthodox conversions to gain citizenship.
Speaking with the Tel Aviv International Salon for English-speaking voters in the upcoming Knesset elections, Netanyahu was asked about the High Court of Justice ruling last week that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements must be recognized as Jews for the purpose of the Law of Return, and are thus entitled to Israeli citizenship.
The ruling only applies to conversions in Israel. A previous court decision forced the state to recognize non-Orthodox conversions abroad for purposes of immigration, but not those performed in the country.
Netanyahu did not comment directly on the recent ruling, but asserted that he was “very liberal” on conversions.
“I think we have to be very careful… about tampering with the Law of Return,” he said, referring to legislation allowing anyone who is Jewish or whose parents or grandparents are Jewish to immigrate to Israel.
While stressing Israel was the home of all Jews, Netanyahu said, “We have to prevent fake conversions that could come into the country.”
He then noted the security barrier along Israel’s border with Egypt, which he has credited with stopping African migrants and asylum seekers from entering the country.
“I prevented the overrunning of Israel,” he said. “We would have here already a million illegal migrants from Africa and the Jewish state would’ve collapsed.”
Netanyahu was then asked if he was specifically concerned about migrants from Africa converting to Judaism to obtain Israeli citizenship.
“Not only from there, you can have it from the entire world. I think we can solve the problem of conversion for all streams and all denominations in Judaism, but we also have to protect the borders of Israel so that we’re not overrun, and I think we can find a balance between the two,” he said.
The premier also said, “We’ll probably adopt” a compromise conversion plan proposed by former minister Moshe Nissim. That plan, rejected by the Haredi parties, would have seen an overhaul of the conversion system in Israel, and would have removed it from under the control of the ultra-Orthodox-dominated rabbinate by establishing a new state-run Orthodox authority instead.
The recent ruling has been rejected by the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, Netanyahu’s longtime political allies, who have said they will only join a coalition, after the upcoming elections, that will overturn the ruling via legislation.
Shas and United Torah Judaism previously rejected a compromise plan that would have accepted conversions by some relatively liberal Orthodox rabbis, which later prompted the High Court to intervene after 15 years of stalled efforts.
Since the High Court ruling, Shas and United Torah Judaism have both released ads attacking Reform Jews.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders do not view the Reform movement as an authentic form of Judaism and do not recognize Reform rabbis.
Israel is holding its fourth election in two years on March 23. Netanyahu will need the support of both ultra-Orthodox parties in order to have a chance of forming a coalition.