(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Interior Ministry policies discriminate against Israelis born in the former Soviet Union and discourage aliya, several MKs charged Monday.
The Knesset's Immigration and Absorption Committee held a session examining the procedural hurdles family members of FSU immigrants who want tourist visas for Israel must go through.
Unlike visitors from Europe and North America, Israeli consuls in FSU countries, acting on the instructions of the Interior Ministry, can require applicants for tourist visas to prove their familial relationship with Israeli citizens, their financial independence and their intention to return home.
In some cases, FSU immigrants in Israel must submit applications of invitation on behalf of their relatives and friends, which can take several months and cost hundreds of shekels, and sometimes include posting a bond of several thousand shekels.
Even tourist visa applicants who are eligible to make aliya are sometimes required to go through this process, although it is usually shorter for them.
"This is racism toward only Russian and Ukrainian [immigrants]," said Kadima MK Michael Nudelman, the committee's chairman.
Jewish Agency representative Emma Trachtenberg told the panel that people considering making aliya "take into account" that their families might not be able to visit them, especially in the case of an emergency.
"There is enormous damage" to the cause of aliya, she said, as potential olim decide to stay in their native countries rather than risk separation from their families.
The committee also heard of the disappointment of a former Prisoner of Zion, Yuli Kosharovsky, who sent a letter detailing the difficulties his daughter - who is eligible for aliya - encountered trying to visit him here, including demands for 13 documents by the Moscow consul and a months-long wait for processing.
"It's inconceivable that after I fought for 18 years to make aliya from Moscow to Israel, I should now have to go through hell and to fight with Interior Ministry clerks so that my daughter can come visit me for 10 days," he wrote.
In addition to testimony from members of the public, several Russian MKs shared experiences of acquaintances who encountered problems reaching Israel.
Acquiring a tourist visa is no guarantee of entry; officials can still prohibit people from entering when they review their papers at border crossings and at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Nudelman said he recently received a call from a friend, a professor from Ukraine, who was visiting Israel and wanted the MK to meet him at the airport to ensure that he would indeed get into the country.
"I'm angry. It's a disgrace for me that friends to have ask me to accompany them from the airport," Nudelman said.
An Interior Ministry representative at the committee meeting said her office had to check relevant documents before allowing entry to noncitizens, but that "there was no intention to delay the processing."
She also said the regulations were governed by the agreements in place between Israel and other countries about whether visitors need visas. Citizens of European countries and America don't need to go through such a process because they don't need visas to enter Israel, she said, adding that since visitors from the FSU do need visas, the Interior Ministry needed to review their applications.
But Nicole Maor, an attorney at the Israel Religious Action Center, said Israeli officials only employed such procedures for countries whose citizens they worry will overstay their visas.
"The injury that [these policies] do to Israeli citizens and Israel's status among other nations is much greater than that fear," she said. "Israel expects that its citizens can enter in and out of other countries with as little hindrance as possible."
She said that there were simpler and less expensive ways to guarantee people wouldn't overstay their visas, and said that the situation was particularly absurd for those who were eligible to make aliya, since the country didn't mind if those individuals stayed on to make aliya.
She added that Israel had a "moral responsibility" to allow family members to visit relatives who had made aliya.
"It's not the state's responsibility to give them a status if they aren't eligible," she said, "but it's our responsibility to let them see their mother or sister."