Jewish Enough for Birthright — But Not for Israel

Kafkaesque Dilemmas Bedevil Would-Be Immigrants

TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT ISRAEL

By Judy Maltz

Published January 23, 2014.

(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.

“We are finding numerous cases these days of young adults in Israel trying to obtain work permits and being put through the ringer attempting to prove that they’re Jewish,” says Nicole Maor, an attorney with the Israel Religious Action Center who has handled some of these cases. “What’s happening is that instead of encouraging these young Jews to strengthen their connections to Israel, they’re turning them off.”

Maor notes that in a recent case she appealed, a letter from a rabbi attesting to her client’s Jewish lineage was rejected because the rabbi had retired and was no longer the acting head of a congregation.

Rabbi runaround

B., an American who asked that his full name not be used, is another case in point. In 2010, he spent 10 months in Israel on a program sponsored by Masa, the Jewish Agency-supported organization that runs hundreds of gap-year, study-abroad and post-college programs in Israel.

Defining himself as a “third-generation atheist” whose maternal grandmother was born Jewish, he and his family never belonged to a Jewish congregation. When he finished his Masa program, he decided to stay in Israel and complete a master’s degree, after which he began looking for a job.

“I was told I needed to get a work visa, and to do that, I needed a letter from my rabbi confirming that I was Jewish,” recalls B. “Because I didn’t have a congregational rabbi, I contacted my Hillel rabbi, who wrote me a letter, but the Interior Ministry said it wasn’t good enough because it didn’t say that my mother was Jewish, and this Hillel rabbi didn’t feel she could attest that my mother was Jewish.”

Because B. couldn’t find certified documentation of his mother’s Jewish lineage, he had no choice but to return to the United States for classes in Judaism to “affirm” his Jewish roots. In effect, he started a conversion course so he could come back to Israel and obtain his work permit.

The experience left him with a bitter taste. “What annoyed me is that I was excluded because I don’t have a rabbi to my name,” he says. “It makes me question whether I want to stay in Israel.”

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad told Haaretz the new policy, initiated by the former minister, Eli Yishai, aimed to entice young Jews to stay in Israel by making it easier for them to study and work here. “But for this privilege, there needs to be proof that they’re Jewish,” she says.

Before the new policy took effect, she notes, there were no specific regulations for handling work and student visa requests from Jews visiting from abroad.

According to other sources familiar with the subject, before 2012, requests for visa extensions and status changes from Jews were usually approved with a wink without any requirements for proof of Jewish lineage.

The Israeli government spends about $35 million a year on bringing young Jewish adults to Israel on Taglit-Birthright’s free 10-day-trips. Private philanthropists, Jewish federations and other organizations contribute about twice that amount combined.

Since Taglit-Birthright doesn’t accept candidates who have visited Israel before, its participants often come from nonaffiliated homes, many of them the products of mixed marriages. Among members of this group who choose to return to Israel after they have been on Birthright, the new policy is a major obstacle.

The government and Jewish Agency also subsidize Masa, and according to Avi Rubel, a senior director at the organization, about one-third of the 2,700 participants in its programs each year end up staying in Israel, where they inevitably begin looking for work.

Although Masa participants receive a special visa when they come to Israel, for which they are required to sign a document declaring that they are Jewish, the Israeli authorities usually don’t request evidence to substantiate this claim. This explains why participants like A. could be accepted to Masa but have their Jewish credentials challenged later on.

The Jewish Agency issued the following statement to Haaretz: “We attribute great importance to bringing young people from the Diaspora to Israel on a wide range of experiential programs and see this as a tool for strengthening their Jewish identity and for deepening their connection to the State of Israel. When these young people inquire into the possibility of obtaining permanent status in Israel, after participating in one of these programs, it is incumbent on them to approach the relevant offices that deal with these matters in Israel.”

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.

“The problems begin in November-December, about the time that their three-month tourist visas expire,” Farber says. “Then they have to start proving that they’re Jewish. The main problem is with those students who have mothers who are converts. They just don’t understand how anyone can be challenging their Jewishness. They can’t figure out why they should be excluded, and it’s absolutely devastating for them.”

The story of S. may be atypical because he grew up in a strongly affiliated Jewish home in the Washington D.C. area and even spent a year in Israel before attending college on a Young Judaea program. But that didn’t spare the 24-year-old a huge bureaucratic ordeal when he applied for his Israeli work visa.

“Even though I belonged to a Conservative congregation, I was able to get the Chabad rabbi near where I lived to write a letter for me, but that letter was rejected because it wasn’t hand-signed by him,” he says. “I finally was able to get a hand-signed letter from my rabbi, but it took months and months for that letter to be approved by the Jewish Agency, and meanwhile I almost had to give up my job.” Altogether, it took him close to six months to have his Jewish credentials validated.

According to Maor, many young Jews simply give up and leave the country. “Some of them end up overstaying their visas, so after they leave, they don’t want to come back to Israel because they’re afraid of being hassled at the airport for having been here illegally,” she says.

Maor believes there is no justification for using the same criteria to determine who is a Jew for both immigration and temporary visas.

“I can completely understand the need to have a strict definition in place for determining who is a Jew for citizenship, but why should the same criteria apply to people who are here temporarily for work or studies?” she says. “After all, these people are not eligible for the same package of benefits as new immigrants.”

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