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Once again, readers of The Jerusalem Post have been treated to tales of immigrant woe at the hands of the Interior Ministry.
This week, the story centered on olim from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) who face such tremendous bureaucratic hurdles arranging for friends and family to visit them here that they often despair of seeing their loved ones. In some cases, according to the Jewish Agency, individuals eligible for Israeli citizenship choose not to make aliya because of the threat of long-term separation from their relatives.
Members of the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee this week heard of numerous obstacles put in the way of many - though not all - of those in the FSU wishing to visit Israel. Unlike tourists from North American and European countries who don't need visas, citizens of countries such as Russia and Ukraine are generally asked to provide documents attesting to their relationship to their Israeli hosts, financial well-being and ties to their native countries before being given permission to enter. The process, which often involves the host providing additional documents here at the Interior Ministry, can take months and cost hundreds if not thousands of shekels in translation fees, travel to and from government offices and the like.
In a particularly appalling instance, a former Prisoner of Zion complained of the hurdles he had to overcome to enable his own child to visit. As he pointed out in a letter to the immigration committee, his 21-year-old daughter is eligible to make aliya. And yet, he related, Israel's consul in Moscow - working at the direction of the Interior Ministry - told her to provide 13 different documents and wait two months to get a visa.
"It's inconceivable that, after I fought for 18 years in order to make aliya from Moscow to Israel, I should have to go through hell and to fight now with Interior Ministry clerks so that my daughter can come visit me for 10 days," he wrote with justifiable outrage.
There are others who have become so discouraged that they have simply given up on the visit.
The reason for this process, as explained by Interior Ministry officials - who say it shouldn't take months but weeks - stems from a lack of agreements between Israel and countries like Russia that would remove the need for tourist visas. But underlying this rationale is the concern - sometimes verbalized, sometimes not - that non-Jews from the FSU with family here will stay on illegally once their tourist visas run out.
The state has a reasonable interest in ensuring that only those who won't violate their visas visit, but it shouldn't be preventing legitimate tourists from traveling to Israel. Surely the Interior Ministry can create a quicker, more transparent, less costly process like many other countries have. Moreover, those entitled to make aliya shouldn't have to go through such a rigamarole to visit for a few days; they should be encouraged to come.
The good news is that Knesset members seem genuinely invested in ameliorating the situation. Those at Monday's committee meeting were vocal in their anger and disgust at practices they labeled discriminatory. In fact, Israel Beiteinu MK Yosef Shagal told the committee that he decided to move from journalism to politics when he encountered a woman who was struggling to arrange for her mother, sick with cancer, to visit her in Israel.
The bad news is that former interior ministers Ophir Paz-Pines of Labor and Avraham Poraz of Shinui seemed similarly interested in reforming the system, so that their office's bureaucracy wouldn't harm immigrants and hinder aliya. And yet, under their tenures, not much got better. The current Interior Minister, Roni Bar-On, has only been in office a few months but there are no signs that he has improved things. These ministry policies make life miserable for many citizens and do everything but serve the interests of the state.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon made immigration a key aim of his government, looking to bring one million new immigrants by 2020. His political heir, Ehud Olmert, has also stressed the importance of aliya. Yet the annual amount of newcomers (22,657 in 2005) falls far short of government's goals, despite millions being pumped into programs to boost the numbers. These hopes and expectations will remain far from reality if the very mechanism that processes olim - that makes one a citizen of Israel - scares people off rather than welcoming them.