Interior Minister Eli Yishai referred Thursday evening blamed Reform Judaism for the assimilation among Jews.
"Look what is happening with the Reform Jews because of the assimilation. They are disappearing," Yishai told the Israeli Presidential Conference. He was booed by the audience, which was mostly comprised of American Jews.
After hearing the audience's response, Yishai said, "These are figures I've received. I am not making it up. There is a lot of serious assimilation. We are losing the Jewish people in the United States.
The Shas minister called on the Jews of the US and the Diaspora to immigrate to Israel immediately in order to prevent further assimilation. He made the remarks after the moderator, Attila Somfalvi, asked the panel whether Reform and Conservative Judaism should receive equal rights.
When the panel members were asked whether there was room to appoint a Reform or Conservative chief rabbi in Israel, Yishai responded, "What I am hearing here is incitement. To the case in question, as part of the Halacha (Jewish Law) there is a long list of alleviations, there is no objection to alleviations, but we must not break the rules and values which have been here for years, crush them and set up new ones which will lead to assimilation. This will only double the assimilation."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak addressed the hardship of 300,000 non-Jews who have immigrated to Israel. "A person willing to sacrifice his life and defend the State of Israel is worthy of being Jewish, even if his grandmother wasn't exactly on our chain."
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in response to the Yishai's remarks that "the boos the minister received are an appropriate response to his groundless statements. Reform Judaism in the Diaspora has been at the forefront of the battle over the people's continuity for 200 years, and without the thousands of its communities the extent of assimilation would much higher.
"Instead of dealing with US Judaism's affairs, Minister Yishai should deal with the huge damage his party is causing to the image of Judaism in Israel and to its incorruptibility, and to the desire of millions of Israelis to become familiar with their culture and tradition. We are calling on the president, who is hosting Minister Yishai at his conference, to firmly voice his objection to these remarks."
Kobi Nahshoni contributed to this report