The Interior Ministry is disobeying a High Court ruling by hindering converts who want to make aliya, according to Jewish Agency officials who process immigration applications.
On March 31, 2005, the High Court of Justice struck down an Interior Ministry regulation according to which foreign converts had to live in the community where they converted for at least a year before making aliya. The Jewish Agency says it is still waiting for a new directive from the Interior Ministry that would allow it to process new converts' requests for aliya immediately, as they do for converts who have waited a year and for other Jews.
"The Supreme Court said you don't have to wait a year between the final conversion and your aliya, but the Interior Ministry doesn't respect it yet. They didn't give us any new directives, and they don't work according to the instructions of the court," said an agency official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said he must forward the aliya applications of new converts to the Interior Ministry for individual approval by the legal department, where it can take anywhere from two to more than six months instead of the mere days or weeks it otherwise would.
"This is not an atmosphere which encourages aliya," he said. "I agree that there are limits, there are laws, and the Interior Ministry has to be careful, but the way they do it is bad for aliya. It's bad for encouraging people to be part of the people of Israel."
He added that the converts "are losing time, and when they're losing time, they are losing jobs, and they are losing the motivation to even become Israeli."
"If the Interior Ministry has not changed its practices in the wake of a High Court decision, that's very grave and I assure you I will take care of it immediately. I wasn't aware of it. We'll make no complications for those affected by the Supreme Court decision," Interior Minister Roni Bar-On, who took up his post in early May, told The Jerusalem Post.
He challenged the assertion, however, that Interior Ministry policies discourage aliya. "That's harder for me to accept," he said. "Worldwide, immigration is out of favor. Nonetheless, Israel is a country of immigrant absorption and, so far as the Interior Ministry is concerned, I, in the shortest period possible, want to turn the Population Registry into an institution that truly serves the citizens."
But Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski said there were problems with the way the Interior Ministry treated converts. "Even those for whom we agree on the process, sometimes we create so much bureaucracy for them that they have to be very strong in their faith and love of Israel to carry on and come complete the process," he said to the Post in an interview.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Israel Religious Action Center said his Reform Movement would discuss the issue with Bar-On during a meeting next week and would file a complaint for "contempt of court" if progress wasn't made in implementing the High Court decision soon.
An Interior Ministry spokeswoman said new protocols in accordance with the court decision would be drawn up "in the near future" now that a new administration had come into office.
"The Ministry of Interior is working on them very closely with the State Attorney, so it's not correct to say that it is violating the Supreme Court [decision]," she said. She added that the ministry had been "close" to issuing new protocols under the last interior minister, Ophir Paz-Pines, but that work on them had been disrupted by Labor's exit from the government and by the subsequent call for new elections.
Orthodox Rabbi Shaul Farber of Itim, which presses for the state to absorb converts, welcomed the pledge that a new procedure would soon be in place. But, he said, "The world is not supposed to stop when the government falls. As far as I know, not one person in the Population Registry or the [ministry's] legal team has been switched following the elections."
He added that in the meantime, temporary provisions should allow converts to enjoy basic rights such as work permits and health insurance until new regulations were in place.
"Jewish tradition emphasizes the precarious position of those who have undergone conversion. The Bible states numerous times that the Jews themselves were strangers in a land not theirs, and this mandates that the convert receive extra protection," he said.
"If Abraham arrived here now, he would not be able to get a job. Soon after he adopted monotheism, God told him to leave Babylonia and come here. If the Interior Ministry [had been around], Babylon is where he would have stayed," he said.
He concluded, "The Interior Ministry is preventing aliya."
One Jewish Agency official involved in aliya, however, disagreed.
"Every country has immigration criteria," she said. "If you're talking about getting citizenship and joining a people, then I don't think a year is so long. If it's for a lifetime, what's a year?"
She estimated the number of cases of foreign converts who needed to wait for Interior Ministry approval at about three dozen a year.
Her colleague said even one would be too many and that the small number was not indicative of the significance of the "terrible" attitude it meant the state was conveying toward converts.
He said the Interior Ministry's foot-dragging on implementing the court decision stemmed from concerns about foreign workers using the option to gain citizenship, despite the conversion courts' contention that they carefully screen converts and impose a lengthy process on them.
The result, he said, was that every convert "is treated as a suspect."
Kariv, who said the converts he helped usually completed the process in a few months thanks to the threat of legal action, attributed the Interior Ministry's approach to a desire to keep Reform and Conservative converts out of Israel.
He said the policy of the one-year wait after conversion had only begun in the late 1990s, when it was applied to Reform and Conservative converts who had studied in Israel and had gone abroad to finish their conversion, since only non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel were accepted by the Interior Ministry for purposes of citizenship. When they returned to be recognized as olim, they were denied by the ministry, sparking the court case ruled on last March.
Kariv dubbed the situation one in which "a bureaucracy controls a ministry."
He said that Interior Ministry civil servants - as opposed to interior ministers, who had approved a more open processes - were trying to impose their "ideology" of Orthodoxy as the only acceptable path to conversion.
But he noted that once Reform and Conservative converts were required to undergo a one-year wait, so were the Orthodox. "For the first time, the Orthodox community, Orthodox rabbis, and Orthodox converts are being punished by the deeds of the Orthodox establishment here in Israel. It's a ridiculous situation in which the Ministry of Interior is not obeying a Supreme Court ruling for more than 16 months," he said.