Recent Arrests Spark Calls for Tighter Screening of Immigrants to Israel

By Nathan Jeffay

Published December 02, 2009, issue of December 11, 2009.
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Two high-profile arrests in Israel of immigrants in violent and shocking crimes have prompted calls in the Jewish state for far-reaching changes to immigration procedures.

From America With Hate? Yaakov “Jack” Teitel, an American immigrant, has been indicted in Israel on charges including murder.
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From America With Hate? Yaakov “Jack” Teitel, an American immigrant, has been indicted in Israel on charges including murder.

Yaakov “Jack” Teitel, who hails from Florida, allegedly perpetrated a decade-long campaign of terrorist-style attacks in Israel. In late October, Teitel confessed to a long list of crimes, mostly against Palestinians and left-wing Israelis, including murder and planting bombs. In November, he was indicted on 14 charges, including two counts of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder, holding and manufacturing weapons and inciting violence. And according to Israeli police, when Teitel became an Israeli citizen in 2000, he was wanted by law authorities in the United States for alleged violent criminal activity.

Just after Teitel’s confessions became public, it emerged that police suspect another immigrant in a multiple-murder that gripped and appalled Israel. On October 17, six members of the Oshrenko family of Rishon LeZion were killed, and Damian Kerlik, a sacked waiter from the family’s restaurant avenging his dismissal, has been indicted for the crime. Kerlik is suspected of leaving behind a dark past when he moved from Russia to Israel in 2004. Russian authorities suspect him of robbery. Two years ago they requested his extradition. The request was under consideration when the murders took place.

The Israeli media drew a clear lesson from both cases: Immigration authorities need to research the backgrounds of immigrants more carefully. The cases “reveal a major weakness in Israel’s immigration system,” said a report in Haaretz. The existing procedures are “murderously negligent,” wrote Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz, calling for “immigrant profiling.”

One influential politician has gone even further, saying that these cases prove that the premise of the Law of Return, namely that Jews should be granted instant citizenship, is outdated. “The Law of Return should stop being a cover for the arrival of unwanted persons,” Kadima lawmaker and former interior minister Meir Sheetrit told Army Radio in early November.

The Law of Return, passed in 1950 and often described as the legislation that cements Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, gives the right of automatic citizenship to anybody of Jewish ancestry — at a minimum one Jewish grandparent. According to this law, anybody can contact their local representative of the Jewish Agency — or in the former Soviet Union a special Israeli government delegation called Nativ — and set about proving their eligibility.

This involves providing letters from rabbis, marriage certificates of the applicant, their parents or grandparents, or local government records that show a family to have Jewish ancestry. By contrast, immigration authorities dealing with people living in the Diaspora wanting to make the move take their word that they pose no danger to Israel or its citizens. Immigrants just need to sign a form saying that they have no criminal record.

Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish Agency spokesman, told the Forward that, in the vast majority of cases, the form is filed and no further investigation is made. Only a “very few” applicants are asked to provide evidence in the form of police records, he said. When this happens, he explained, it is because the Jewish Agency or Nativ emissary — whose role is communal, not legal — has suspicions.

One of the criticisms aired in the Israeli media is that the ability of immigration authorities to filter out criminal elements suffers from confusion as to who is responsible for doing so. The Forward asked the Jewish Agency and the Interior Ministry which of them is in charge, and each said the other. When Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad was told that the Jewish Agency said the buck stops with her ministry, she replied: “I know they do — so what?”

Further complicating the picture is the fact that people who fear they will raise suspicions at Jewish Agency offices in the Diaspora often take another route. “A lot of people who have problems making aliyah are coming first and then making aliyah,” said Hadad, meaning that they move to Israel first and then later apply for citizenship under the Law of Return. She added that once in Israel, “it is difficult to tell them to leave,” and said that being asked to leave rarely happens. Teitel is one of those who took the route of applying for citizenship once in Israel.

Theoretically, procedures for those applying for citizenship when already living in Israel are stricter than for those applying from the Diaspora, and applicants are meant to provide police records. But, in practice, this requirement is often waived — and Hadad was unable to confirm whether Teitel provided records.

For Sheetrit, proposals such as Horovitz’s to establish who is responsible and introduce comprehensive checks are simply not enough. He wants anybody who wishes to immigrate to do so on a trial basis for five years and then, if they pass muster, to be granted citizenship.

Sheetrit, who himself was born in Morocco and immigrated to Israel as a child, told the Forward that according to his plan, Israel would create a waiting period for potential citizens similar to those in Europe and the United States. In the five-year period, during which people would be granted residency, authorities could check into applicants’ backgrounds. Applicants would also be expected to study Israeli law and learn Hebrew. At the end of the period they would be assessed on all these criteria, and if an assessment committee gives its approval, they would then become citizens.

“The State of Israel needs to start acting like a state and not like a committee of a Jewish community,” Sheetrit told the Forward.

Immigrant and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, a Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker who was born in Russia and made aliyah in 1979, reacted to the plan, and to the calls to introduce more careful checking of immigrants, with fury. “All of the talk about the supposed need to ‘toughen up checks into potential immigrants’ and to ‘place a checkpoint before the immigration of murders,’ and even to change the Law of Return, it is nothing more than pathetic and racist expressions that draw a parallel between the origins of an entire public and their alleged criminal inclinations,” she told local media.

Jankelowitz was similarly critical when questioned by the Forward. “Because of these two extreme cases, it doesn’t mean we should make the lives of potential immigrants a misery,” he said, adding that the Jewish Agency has been working to reduce its legendarily bureaucratic procedures. “There are enough checks and balances in the system. Everyone complains that Israel is bureaucratic, and now people want Israel to introduce more bureaucracy!”

Bobby Brown, an adviser on Diaspora affairs to Benjamin Netanyahu during his previous stint as prime minister and then to his successor, Ehud Barak, said that any changes to immigration procedures would be a “slippery slope” toward undermining the principle of blanket eligibility for aliyah and would constitute a “chill factor” that reduces immigration applications.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com






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