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Jewish grandma weighs in
G., a 28-year-old Californian, calls herself a “Birthright success story.” After taking a trip with the program in 2008, she moved back two years later to enroll in a graduate program at an Israeli university. The trouble began when she decided to apply for a work visa.
“I was told that the process would be expedited – and that I would not be charged for the visa – if I could prove that I was Jewish. I had a letter from my rabbi, but it didn’t specify that my mother’s side of the family was Jewish, so the Jewish Agency wouldn’t accept it,” she recounts.
“Because my mother wasn’t affiliated with any synagogue, there was no rabbi who could attest for her, so I had to ask my grandmother in South Carolina to get a letter from her rabbi stating that she was Jewish, and have him fax that letter to my rabbi in California, so that my rabbi could write a new letter confirming that my mother’s mother was Jewish, and that therefore so was my mother, and that therefore so was I.”
Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and director of ITIM, an organization that helps people navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy, says he has come across about 25 similar cases in recent years, mainly involving young Americans.
“What we are witnessing is the creation of a culture of xenophobia in the corridors of power in Israel,” he says. “It manifests itself in the way we treat people born Jewish who don’t fit the description of what a Jew should look like. Instead of Israel assuming its traditional role as a center for Jewish peoplehood, it is driving these people away.”
The new policy not only affects Diaspora Jews seeking to work in Israel, but also those applying for special student visas to attend nondegree-granting educational institutions such as yeshivas and seminaries, Farber says.
The Interior Ministry issues two types of student visas: one for students at degree-granting institutions, and one for students at nondegree-granting institutions. Under the new policy, obtaining a student visa (including a fee waiver) at a nondegree-granting institution requires proof that the applicant meets the definition of a Jew in the Law of Return.