Israeli Minister Lashes Out at Reform Jewish Leaders, Says They Would Convert Thousands of 'Infiltrators'

'Dery is a liar' shoots back Israeli Reform movement leader Gilad Kariv; URJ President Rick Jacobs condemns 'harsh and hateful views' by ultra-Orthodox party chairman

Shas Chairman Arye Dery in February 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Interior Minister Arye Dery attacked the leaders of Reform Judaism on Monday, painting their efforts to break the government-sponsored Rabbinate monopoly on conversion as an attempt to open the door for mass conversion of thousands of asylum seekers.

Speaking at his ultra-Orthodox Shas party’s weekly meeting (to which the media were invited) on the twin controversies of the frozen Western Wall agreement and the conversion bill, Dery said he was the victim of what he called “the worst kind of incitement campaign against the Haredi public and Haredi parties.”

Addressing the conversion bill – which would deny the validity of conversions undertaken outside the state-sanctioned Orthodox system in Israel – he said the Reform movement was demanding the “keys to the Law of Return,” and that granting it meant “infiltrators” seeking residency here could receive conversions to Judaism.

If the ability to convert was in “these people’s hands,” Dery said that “within a year or two” massive numbers of asylum seekers “will get themselves conversion certificates and I’ll have to register them automatically.”

Dery described Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the movement’s executive director in Israel, as unworthy of “holding the keys” to the Law of Return as the reasons their conversions should not be recognized.

He then quoted Jacobs (whom he refrained from calling “rabbi”) as saying that intermarriage “was not a sickness” and making “derogatory” remarks about U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

“This man, who doesn’t live here with us, and his followers, most of whom don’t live here and have never visited the Kotel, want me to hand them the keys to the Law of Return,” added Dery. Jacobs, he said, would have “representatives” in Israel be able to “convert anything they come across.”

Kariv, he alleged, had political interests, since he belonged to an NGO supporting rights for African asylum seekers, where he was “proud” of seeking a way for them to stay in Israel.

Dery said his support for the conversion bill was to preserve the status quo and preventing the court’s ability to allow non-Rabbinate conversions in Israel, not to change the current situation in which non-Orthodox conversions overseas are still recognized for purposes of the Law of Return.

The fact he opposed private ultra-Orthodox conversions, as well as Reform and Conservative ones, was proof, he said, that his goal was to “maintain order” in the conversion process by keeping it exclusively within the Rabbinate.

If there were no court petitions calling for recognition of conversions outside the Rabbinate, he said, there would be no conversion bill.

He said his motives were “pure and clean,” and that “as interior minister I have to protect the entryway to the State of Israel.”

Dery said he had been unfairly accused of trying to limit access to non-Orthodox Jews to the Western Wall, following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent decision to freeze the plans for an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel.

Dery said the freeze had shut down “a back-door attempt to give official status and recognition of the State of Israel to the Reform movement as a stream of Judaism. There is no connection between that and the ability of any Jew to go to the Kotel and pray there.”

Responding to Dery’s comments, Kariv called the interior minister a “liar” on numerous points. While Kariv said he was on record as “strongly believing that Israel has to have a humanitarian policy toward asylum seekers,” he said there was never a suggestion “that this should be done by granting citizenship to asylum seekers.”

More important, he said, were the “lies” Dery told regarding the conversion bill. “Minister Dery knows he has all of the legal means to prevent the misuse of conversions in order to gain citizenship,” said Kariv.

“The Supreme Court itself already ruled that a person who stays in Israel in an illegal manner cannot convert and then claim citizenship,” he said. “The court also already ruled that the interior minister is allowed to set regulations in order to prevent such misuse, and that 15 years ago the non-Orthodox said in the Supreme Court that we were willing to embrace any regulation of the government aimed at preventing the misuse of conversion.”

Kariv said “the only purpose of the conversion bill is to grant the ultra-Orthodox establishment a monopoly over conversion.”

“I celebrate the fact that he needs to tell lies in order to defend his views,” Kariv added.  

Jacobs, meanwhile, called Dery’s comments “a pathetic rant against me and the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world. Dery and his colleagues alienate millions of Jews from Judaism with their narrow-minded and intolerant worldview. Israelis and North American non-Orthodox Jews are increasingly disgusted by the corrupt Orthodox-political establishment that denigrates fellow Jews and sows disunity among the Jewish people for their own interest.”

He called the conversion bill “a naked power grab to enshrine sole authority for conversions in Israel with the extreme and corrupt ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.”

Both of last month’s decisions regarding the Kotel and conversion bill were made under pressure from Shas and fellow ultra-Orthodox coalition party United Torah Judaism, in order avoid High Court of Justice rulings in favor of the non-Orthodox movements in two pending cases, and have sparked angry protests from liberal Jews worldwide. 

Jacobs said “Israel’s security and well-being depend on resisting the endless attempts by the ultra-Orthodox parties to control and demean the non-ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and throughout the world. Jewish pluralism isn’t a favor we seek from the Israeli government, but a right of a Jewish democratic state.”