JERUSALEM (JTA) — David Azoulay, Israel’s minister for religious services, died on Tuesday.
Azoulay, a member of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party, had battled cancer for years. He was 64.
He was appointed to his post by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the 2015 elections. Azoulay remained in the Cabinet despite relinquishing his Knesset seat in March, replaced by his son, Yinon. He was elected to the Knesset in 1996.
In July 2015, shortly after he assumed his ministerial position, Azoulay sparked controversy by saying Reform Jews are not Jewish.
“A Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, I cannot allow myself to say that he is a Jew,” he said in an interview with Army Radio. “These are Jews that have lost their way, and we must ensure that every Jew returns to the fold of Judaism, and accept everyone with love and joy.”
Azoulay later said his remarks were taken out of context, but did not apologize, instead saying on the Knesset floor, “Of course, all Jews, even though they sin, are Jews. At the same time, it is with great pain that we view the damage caused by Reform Judaism, which has brought the greatest danger to the Jewish people, the danger of assimilation.”
In July, he quit the Knesset ministerial committee charged with deciding whether to approve the plan to upgrade the Western Wall’s egalitarian section following instructions from Shas’ rabbinic leadership.
While serving as deputy minister for the interior, Azoulay headed a committee charged with investigating the Jewish status of Ethiopians who claim links to descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago under duress. The committee determined that these Ethiopians, known as Falash Mura, were Jewish and should be brought to Israel, but that they would have to undergo a limited conversion.
Azoulay was born in Morocco and immigrated to Israel in 1963 with his family. He served in the Israeli army as a medic.
He is survived by his wife and four children.