(photo credit: Calev Ben-David)
One morning last month I accompanied my wife Eva to the Jerusalem branch of the Interior Ministry, where we went one flight up to the office of Tzipora Benita, director of the capital's population administration bureau.
In her small office were sitting about 20 people, a little less than half of whom were there to swear an oath of loyalty to the State of Israel and obtain full citizenship.
The circumstances of my wife's attendance were not exceptional. When she made aliya 14 years ago from the Netherlands, her native country didn't allow dual citizenship. In order not to lose her Dutch (and EU) nationality, she opted to become a permanent resident here - in reality a situation not much different from being a citizen, except one does not hold an Israeli passport, is not permitted to vote in national elections, and cannot be employed in certain sensitive government positions (unofficially, the lack of a passport also makes passing through airport security more of an annoyance).
A few years ago the Netherlands decided to liberalize its policy, allowing dual nationality under certain circumstances. There wasn't much procedure involved for Eva to obtain her Israeli citizenship; she just sent in a notarized application form to the Interior Ministry and received a letter in return shortly afterward telling her to come in on a certain date and take an oath of loyalty to the state, which seemed to be simply a formality.
After we entered Benita's office, it quickly became clear that Eva's case - that is, the ease of it - was exceptional. The majority of applicants who go through this procedure are hopeful immigrants who do not qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return. Most want to live here on grounds of family reunification - mainly Arabs, foreign workers, non-Jewish Ethiopians and Russians.
"I know for many of you this morning is the end of a long, hard road," says Benita. "Though not all. Eva, how long ago did you apply for citizenship?" she asks my wife.
"Seven weeks ago," Eva replies.
"Abir," Benita says to an attractive young Arab woman from Jordan who came here as the bride of an Abu Ghosh resident, "when did you start your process?"
"Seven years ago," Abir answers.
"That's right," says Benita, who then turns to her husband: "You think you know your wife better than anyone?"
"Of course," he says.
"Believe me," Benita replies with a smile, "the Interior Ministry knows her better."
So it is with almost all the other applicants in the room. There's Abir; there's an elderly American Christian woman who out of religious conviction has worked for decades for the benefit of Israel (and prefers not to have her story made public); and a number of Russians, including the wife of an Israeli citizen, a soldier who has arrived in uniform, and an adolescent boy named Nikolai.
"His parents were able to come under the Law of Return because each has a Jewish grandparent, but because Nikolai isn't halachically Jewish, he doesn't qualify and has had to go through a citizenship process which has taken years," Benita explains later. "We have many such cases nowadays."
Such stories have been widely reported in the local media, and don't need to be recounted in detail here. But those articles usually focus on the travails of those applying for citizenship and rarely get to the happy endpoint I was to witness this morning.
Benita certainly seemed pleased, even jubilant, with the task she was about to perform.
"I know the Interior Ministry has gotten some bad press, but we've really made an effort to improve our treatment of the people we deal with, and you can ask any of those here if they have ever been treated with disrespect by this office," she tells me. "The fact is, we like to give people citizenship, but it isn't a simple matter for a non-Jew to become a citizen. We have to be careful, especially with Arab applicants for security reasons, and there is a need for the rigorous checking process."
THE ACTUAL ceremony, such as it is, is brief and simple. Benita explains the privileges of citizenship, and then goes around the room and asks each applicant to raise their right hand and say: "I pledge to be a loyal citizen of the State of Israel."
Jewish immigrants who arrive here under the Law of Return aren't required to make this statement (I didn't when I came), and neither are native-born Israelis, unless they do it at the completion of their IDF basic training. I did get to do this with significant fanfare, like most other inductees, in an impressive ceremony at the Western Wall - yet strangely enough, I found myself equally moved, if not more so, by the experience at the Interior Ministry, even if only as a spectator.
I don't want to sentimentalize the scene. As explained, for my wife this was largely a bureaucratic formality - although her journey to Israel years earlier did involve some significant sacrifice and struggle, which is a different story altogether. She came here for ideological reasons, whereas for most of the other applicants that day, more personal reasons having little to do with Zionism were involved.
Yet perhaps knowing how hard it had been for the other people in that room to reach this point, how much effort and patience it had taken them and their loved ones to finally get the chance to pledge loyalty to the state and get citizenship in return, touched me in a way I hadn't expected.
I've written elsewhere about the issue of Israel's policy toward accepting immigrants who are either non-Jewish or whose Jewishness is not halachically recognized, but that is not my purpose at all here. If it were, I would go more into the background of the individuals present that day.
Rather, it is simply to express my regret that Benita's office at the Interior Ministry is so small. For if it were large enough, I would squeeze every single Israeli citizen into that room - as well as every Jew abroad who can easily obtain the citizenship that these people had labored so hard and long to get - just so they could better understand, and appreciate, the privilege the rest of us too easily take for granted.