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Fans of Israeli music group Coolooloosh are joining efforts to prevent the deportation of the group's American lead singer, who interior ministry officials allege has been in the country illegally for much of the past six years. More than 275 supporters have signed an online petition on behalf of the singer, Joel Covington, whose legal fight to stay in Israel was covered by the Hebrew press and which was reported in The Jerusalem Post on November 4. Covington's band mates publicizing the petition as the latest stage in the battle, in hopes that a strong show of support might affect the singer's most recent application to stay in Israel.
Neither band members nor interior ministry officials could say exactly when a decision will be made about Covington's current attempt to remain in Jerusalem, which follows several years of struggle with the ministry over the status of the singer, his wife and the couple's 3- and 5-year-old daughters, both of whom were born in Israel. Letters on Covington's behalf have been written by staffers at Jerusalem club The Lab, Tel Aviv's Jah-Pan club and other venues where Coolooloosh has performed.
Covington, who performs under the stage name Rebel Sun, says he plans to convert to Judaism and apply for Israeli citizenship even if he loses the current battle.
Joined by his wife Shoshana, Covington arrived in Israel on a tourist visa in 1999. The couple were immediately taken with the country, the 27-year-old singer said, and decided to extend their stay in part so that his wife could begin studying for an undergraduate degree at Hebrew University. Her application to switch from a tourist visa to a student visa was rejected, he said, but the couple nevertheless managed to remain in Jerusalem and pay tuition fees to the university while she completed her degree. Last month, Shoshana Covington began her second year in the university's masters program in international relations - despite the interior ministry letter calling for her to leave the country. She has since submitted another request for a student visa, which would entitle her husband and daughters to stay with her in Israel and has been endorsed by several of her professors at the university.
Despite the uncertainty of their situation, her husband is continuing work on Coolooloosh's second album, which follows the group's self-titled debut released earlier this year. Blending jazz, acid jazz, reggae and rap, the Jerusalem-based band has gained a loyal following in its hometown. Comments accompanying Israeli fans' signatures on the petition include "he loves us more than we do!" and "let the guy stay!"
The interior ministry refuses to, however, saying it is "puzzling" that Covington is contesting the deportation order because, the ministry claims, the family has been in Israel illegally since the elder Covingtons' tourist visa expired in April 2000. A statement released by the ministry adds that "every other country would request [that the family leave] under these circumstances," and asks "why [the Covingtons] didn't arrange their status in Israel like many other musicians and students."
Yuval Gerstein, a member of Coolooloosh and the author of the petition, disputes the ministry's statement, saying that "they change their story every time"and that previous claims made by ministry officials were disproven by a lawyer hired by the band to represent the Covingtons. The case appears to have provided introductory legal lessons to band members, with Gerstein noting that a law cited early on by the interior ministry -- that it's not permitted to apply for a student status when one is already in the country as a tourist - is on the books in France but not in Israel.
Covington, meanwhile, says the fight to stay in Israel has not dampened his desire to become a citizen or convert to Judaism. He says he's learning Hebrew "slowly but surely" as he awaits the outcome of the case - his wife and daughters already speak the language fluently - and that his family convert to Judaism and apply for Israeli citizenship in the United States if unable to do so in Jerusalem. Conversions cannot take place in Israel unless a person has a visa or other status recognized by the government.
The battle with the interior ministry has actually helped Coolooloosh's music, he says, thanking "Elohim" for his experiences in Israel so far. The dispute has deepened band members' relationships by giving them a non-musical source of collaboration. "It adds a whole new level of clarity to the music," he said, "because our bonds are now tighter on a more personal level, not just musically."
Gerstein says he and the rest of Coolooloosh are willing to pursue the case "all the way to the Supreme Court," but that "even if the family has to leave, I believe they'll find a way to convert abroad and come back. This is their way of life."
The band is currently holding money that Covington has earned through CD sales and performances, and Gerstein says he hopes the singer will gain the appropriate legal status so that he can be paid what he's earned.
Covington says that family members initially "questioned my decision to come here a whole lot, but now they understand and come to see me every year."
He expresses confidence that he'll ultimately be allowed to live and perform in Israel. "This is not a new war, this is something that's been going on for a while," he said. "As long as I have the ability and the room to fight, I will. Sometimes you take living here for granted, but people come trying to find something in themselves. I found myself here, clarity in my life, a vision of what I'm supposed to be doing. That's why I'm fighting so hard to stay."