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"Who gave you permission to study Hebrew?" asked the clerk at Jerusalem's Interior Ministry, stunning the two German tourists sitting across the desk from her into silence.
The two young women had just told the clerk that they were not Jewish, but never suspected that this would be sufficient reason to deny them an extension of their tourist visas. But in the Interior Ministry, clerks reviewing visa applications have authority to determine applicants' suitability, as there are no objective standards for determining whether or not an applicant may extend her visa.
The two women, in their early twenties, arrived in Israel in October and enrolled in intensive Hebrew study. One of them, Esther, volunteers for Voice of Peace Radio and for the Alternative Information Center. The second, who prefers to remain anonymous, interns at a well-known Israeli institution.
Since their Hebrew program was scheduled to run slightly over three months, the young women decided the proper course of action was to renew their visas rather than apply for a student visa - an option recommended by many programs for overseas students if they plan to be in Israel for less than a year. Tourist visas can be extended every three months, for periods of up to 27 months.
As part of the process of requesting visa extensions, the women were first required to schedule an appointment with an official to review their case. To make that appointment they approached a clerk at the Interior Ministry, told her they were studying in a Hebrew-language program, and requested visa extensions for periods of 90 days and of two-and-a-half-weeks, respectively.
When the clerk asked if they were doing anything else while in Israel, they told her of their volunteer and internship commitments.
When they told the clerk, in answer to her question, that they were not Jewish, she then asked them: "Who gave you permission to study Hebrew?" the young women told The Jerusalem Post.
The clerk informed them that the fact that their language program was set to end shortly was not reason enough to extend their visas, even after the two had shown her their return tickets to Germany, proof of their intention to return home.
"There's no reason to make an appointment. It will be very difficult for you to get a visa," the clerk said, according to the women. The clerk then refused to accept any of their paperwork or even to record their passport numbers, they told the Post.
Esther made three more requests for visa extensions. The fourth time, faced with the same clerk, she was asked the same questions. When she replied that she was not Jewish and lied that her father was, the clerk agreed to process her visa.
The second woman also met with the clerk two more times, but she was never given an opportunity to schedule the appointment required to apply for a visa extension.
The ministry provides general guidelines for its employees to use in determining visa renewal, but the guidelines - aimed at preventing foreigners from taking up illegal residence in Israel - do not provide objective criteria regarding who is eligible and who is not.
"Unfortunately, the situation is completely a matter of luck as to which clerk you get, on which day and in what mood," said Nicole Maor, an attorney with the Israel Religious Action Center, who specializes in cases involving the Interior Ministry.
Maor, however, doesn't blame the clerks.
"[They] are in a lose-lose situation because the law doesn't give a right answer. This particular clerk may have thought 'If the law says it is a Jewish state, why should they grant a visa to learn Hebrew to somebody who's not Jewish?'"
Maor said that the Interior Ministry has a siege mentality, that it is tasked with defending the Jewish nature of the state, and this approach resulted in the rulings given the two young women.
"There is an ideology that's been passed down through the clerks at the Interior Ministry since it was run by religious parties. The fact that [the religious parties] haven't been in control [at the ministry] for the past few years has done nothing to change the institutionalized ideology," Maor said.
In Maor's experience, the lack of standards in determining visa and residency cases has caused situations much more drastic than that of Esther and her friend.
In a case which Maor appealed to the ministry, a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father made aliya with their small child. When the mother died soon afterwards, the father tried to bring his mother to Israel to care for the child while he tried to establish himself in his new country. The grandmother, however, was not eligible to move to Israel under the Law of Return. As a result there were no standards under which she could qualify for anything beyond a three-month tourist visa.
"In all of these cases, the Interior Ministry's system - and we see it time and again - is first to give a negative answer, and only if the person has the strength and ability to fight it, they change it," said Maor.
No legal precedents exist defending this sort of challenge because, according to Maor, "if you have a strong claim, they'll immediately back down so they don't get a judgment against them. If you come with a weak case, they fight, so that there is now a long list of precedents in their favor."
Jewish applicants and those who qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return, however, are easily granted tourist or student visas.
Sabine Haddad, the spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's Population Registry, said that in cases where the applicant is subject to the Law of Return, "they can stay in Israel without restrictions" because "they can gain citizen status at the instant that they request it."
With regard to the specific case of the two German women, Haddad said that the information presented to her was insufficient to determine whether the complaints were well-founded, but added that "we apologize and will clarify details about the treatment that the young women received.
"The Interior Ministry makes every effort to improve its service to the public. Even in instances where the professional decision was completely justified, the service given to the public needs to be perfect."
Haddad said that if the young women were willing to submit their passport numbers for inspection, she would investigate their allegations.