Jewish Enough for Birthright — But Not for Israel

Kafkaesque Dilemmas Bedevil Would-Be Immigrants

TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT ISRAEL

By Judy Maltz

Published January 23, 2014.
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(Haaretz) — They grew up believing they were Jewish. They signed up for programs in Israel hoping to strengthen their Jewish identity. They came, saw, fell in love and decided to stay.

And then, just when they were about to accept their first job offer, they hit a wall. You want a work permit? Prove you’re Jewish – they were told by the Israeli authorities.

Variations of this story are increasingly being heard among graduates of Birthright, study-abroad and post-college internship programs in Israel. Scores of young adults whose Jewish identity had never been questioned are suddenly being asked to prove their religious lineage when they request a change in their visa status.

For those born to two Jewish parents who were longtime members of recognized congregations and have a rabbi who can easily vouch for them, it’s usually a painless process. But for those whose families were never affiliated with a congregation, whose parents or grandparents may have lost their Jewish marriage certificates, who are the products of mixed marriages or have a parent who converted, providing this evidence can be a daunting task. It could be nightmarish enough to have them pack their bags and leave.

Ironically, it seems the new policy responsible for making these young Diaspora Jews feel less welcome was prompted by a desire to facilitate their integration. In mid-2012, the Interior Ministry published new rules designed to expedite the process of awarding and extending work and student visas for Jews. These rules waived any fees required in the past and extended the duration of the permits for much longer periods.

The catch was that to be eligible, applicants had to prove they were Jewish, according to the definition provided in the Law of Return. That is, they had to be the child, grandchild or spouse of a Jew, or a Jew by choice converted outside Israel.

As evidence of Jewish lineage, the ministry requires a letter from a rabbi serving as the acting leader of a congregation, and in the case of converts, all the relevant paperwork documenting the conversion. Its decisions are contingent on the recommendations of the Jewish Agency, which reviews all these documents to determine if the applicants fit the definition of a Jew by Israeli law.


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