Interior Minister and Shas Party chairman Arye Deri accused the media and “interested parties” of mounting a disinformation campaign against the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political parties over the cancellation of the Western Wall agreement and the advancement of controversial legislation on conversion.
Deri singled out the head of the Reform Movement in the US, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and the head of the movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, for special criticism, insinuating that they were seeking to convert thousands of African refugees and illegal immigrants currently residing in Israel.
In response, Kariv called Deri “a liar,” adding that the progressive Jewish movements committed in 2002 to not converting anyone who was not a citizen or legal resident in Israel. He then accused Deri of exploiting concerns over conversion as cover for consolidating power in the Chief Rabbinate.
Last Sunday, the government indefinitely suspended the Western Wall agreement to establish a state-recognized egalitarian prayer section at the site and approved a bill that would give the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on conversion in Israel.
That set off a firestorm of criticism against the government and the haredi parties for reneging on the Western Wall agreement and for seeking to further strengthen the Chief Rabbinate’s power over personal status issues.
“There is a campaign of disinformation that we have decided to create a halachic state and take control of the Western Wall,” Deri said, using the term for Jewish religious law. “Lies.
This is a campaign of incitement by people who want to break apart the coalition or have other interests.”
Deri insisted that access to the Western Wall was completely open and despite the agreement’s cancellation, the egalitarian prayer platform at Robinson’s Arch at the southern end of the Wall would not be affected and would even be upgraded.
The Prime Minister’s Office has, in fact, announced that physical upgrades and renovations will now be made to the site, a project that has been allocated NIS 18 million, according to Deri.
Regarding the conversion bill, Deri claimed the legislation was not his proposal and tried to imply it was Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit who suggested the legislation be passed to circumvent a ruling of the High Court of Justice.
The petition demanded that the state recognize Reform and Conservative conversions for the purposes of granting such converts citizenship through the Law of Return.
Deri said converts being entitled to citizenship is a unique legal situation that could be abused by illegal immigrants to gain such status.
“We have no intention of harming anyone, [but] if we recognize private Reform or Orthodox conversions, then there is no end to the matter,” he said.
Deri quoted the Reform Movement’s Jacobs as saying a mixed marriage of a Jew and a non- Jew “is not a failure.”
The Jerusalem Post could not immediately locate the source of such a statement by Jacobs. Deri’s office did not respond to an inquiry as to its source, and Jacob’s office also did not responded to a request for comment.
“This man doesn’t live here, and the majority of his community don’t live here and haven’t even visited the Western Wall,” Deri said.
“And they want that we should give them the keys to the Law of Return?” “Should I should give his representatives the possibility of converting anyone they want?” he said. “People who don’t see assimilation as the biggest danger to the existence of the Jewish people? They want to be responsible for the Law of Return?” Deri attacked Kariv for involvement in the Assaf NGO, which provides assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers in Israel and which has specifically provided those from Sudan and Eritrea with aid and support.
In response, Kariv said he had never worked for Assaf but was proud of his stance that Israel should enact “humanitarian policies” toward asylum-seekers.
Describing asylum-seekers as “infiltrators,” Deri said: “This is the same person who wants the keys to determine who can convert here.”
More generally, Deri accused the Reform and Conservative movements of seeking to change the status quo on religion and state issues through petitions to the High Court of Justice. He said Shas and United Torah Judaism were simply responding to those petitions.
“I truly have pure and clean motives,” Deri said. “I heard [Defense Minister] Mr. Liberman say that he doesn’t want a halachic state, [but] we’re not changing anything here.”
The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel convert an average of 15 people each year who are not Israeli citizens.
The Justice Ministry declined a request for comment in response to Deri’s claims that Mandelblit was responsible for initiating the conversion bill.
The Post has learned, however, that three options were presented to Deri at the time for dealing with the petition of the Reform and Conservative movements and it was the minister and government who ultimately decided to go the legislative route.
The first option was to argue the case on its merits in the High Court by noting that non-Orthodox conversions were substantively different from independent, Orthodox conversions, which were given recognition by the High Court in 2016.
The second option was to simply accept the position of the petition and allow non-Orthodox conversions to be accepted, something which Deri would not be able to do politically.
The final option was to legislate on the issue.
Deri apparently chose the third.