Tel Aviv — For 64 years, Israel has been encouraging Jews, whoever and wherever they are, to immigrate as soon as possible. But today, with increasing regularity, one Jewish demographic is being told to slow down: converts to Judaism.
Over the past four months, 15 people who have converted in the Diaspora, through Diaspora rabbinates that Israel deems legitimate, have found themselves denied citizenship under the Law of Return for one simple reason: They were too keen to immigrate or, as Israelis say, using a Hebrew term, make aliyah.
Israel’s Interior Ministry has long asserted that it has the power to withhold immigration rights from converts unless they have been residents of their Diaspora community for a period of time after they convert. It has done so in defiance of a 2005 Supreme Court ruling stating that because all Jews have equal rights to aliyah, converts may immigrate as soon as they become Jewish.
Despite the ruling, the Interior Ministry did not stop claiming power to impose residency requirements, but it applied it sparingly. Now, however, it appears to be making residency demands routinely — leaving some converts in limbo. Most of the 15 applicants refused over the past four months are currently living in Israel on tourist visas. They now face the quandary that to become citizens, they must leave their new lives and return to the Diaspora.
But even this solution is problematic. Lidiah Bikus, a convert from the Belorussian town of Kishinev, asked the Interior Ministry earlier this year what, exactly, are the residency criteria she must fulfill before making aliyah. She received a response, which the Forward has reviewed, in which the Interior Ministry admitted that there are no final or publicly available criteria.
In other words, converts have no idea how long they must spend in the Diaspora before moving to Israel. In the absence of guidelines, converts who have already moved to Israel on tourist visas are confused as to whether returning to the Diaspora now and trying to fulfill the residency requirement will help them — or whether they have missed their only chance for aliyah because the needed to stay put immediately after conversion.
“It is sad that these people have gone through such a significant and difficult process of conversion to Judaism, only to find that the State of Israel, the center of Judaism today, is giving them this slap in the face,” said Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi who runs ITIM, a not-for-profit organization that advocates on behalf of converts.
The Interior Ministry’s residency requirement affects people who have converted through both Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbinates, meaning that the refusees include people who are full Jews in the eyes of Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Normally, the Chief Rabbinate is far more selective than the state in terms of which conversions it accepts.