'Court ruling creates danger of Israel being overrun by fake converts from Africa'

Netanyahu slams Supreme Court decision recognizing Reform conversions performed in Israel, says it opens door to flood of fake converts.

Ben Sales, JTA ,

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Liron Moldovan/POOL/Flash90

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu offered his take Tuesday on a recent Supreme Court decision requiring the government to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel: It could lead to the country being “overrun” with “fake” Jewish converts from Africa.

Netanyahu’s statement, made in an interview with Jerusalem Post reporter Lahav Harkov, came about a week after the court decision reignited a battle over Jewish conversion between left-wing Israelis and Netanyahu’s Orthodox allies.

The Supreme Court ruling, while cheered by the Reform and Conservative movements, is narrow in scope: It applies only to Jews who have converted under non-Orthodox auspices within Israel’s borders, which encompasses a small number of people. Still, haredi politicians and leaders have fulminated against it, with one haredi party implying in a campaign ad that the Reform movement would convert dogs to Judaism.

Resistance to the ruling dovetails with another hot-button political issue in Israel: the status of African illegal immigrants in Israel, a population of roughly 30,000.

One haredi party, Shas, published a Facebook post last week that appeared to feature African illegal immigrants. The post claimed without evidence that “thousands of infiltrators and foreign workers will become Jewish through Reform conversion.”

Netanyahu echoed that claim on Tuesday. He suggested that the court decision could allow African illegal immigrants to take advantage of Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew who applies.

“The real question we have is [how] to prevent fake conversions that could enter the country,” he said in the interview, which was broadcast by the Tel Aviv International Salon. “You know, a lot of people want to come into Israel. In fact, I put up a fence, they call it a wall, but I prevented the overrunning of Israel, which is the only first-world country that you can walk to from Africa. We would have had here already a million illegal migrants from Africa, and the Jewish state would have collapsed.”

Netanyahu was referring to the construction of a fence several years ago along Israel’s southern border, which essentially stopped an influx of tens of thousands of African illegal immigrants who had arrived in Israel in the preceding years.

On Sunday, Gilad Kariv, a Reform leader running for Israel’s parliament with the Labor Party, wrote on Facebook that “The Conservative and Reform movements in Israel convert only those who have residency status. Not labor migrants. Not asylum seekers. Not tourists.”

But when Harkov asked Netanyahu if he was concerned about the possibility of Africans coming to Israel and converting to gain citizenship, he said, “Not only from there, you can have it from the entire world.”

“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,” he said. “And I think we can find a balance between the two.”

Netanyahu also said that non-Orthodox Jews from outside of Israel were welcome to immigrate.