A Schizophrenic Welcome Sign

 When I made Aliyah I was registered as “Jewish” in Israel’s Interior Ministry. When I asked, in the Interior Ministry, how they knew I was Jewish and why they simply accepted my word, I was told in Hebrew, “Look honored sir, we can look at you and see that you are Jewish. But those blonds – who knows what they are?”
So once, it was mostly left up to “OK, you look (or do not look) Jewish to me.”
Fraud is certainly possible among those applying to make Aliyah. There may be those who seek to move to Israel for a better life, or family unification, or for work. So it is quite understandable that the Israeli Interior Ministry requires proof of Judaism (PoJ) or at least proof of eligibility under the Law of Return (LOR). One qualifies for Aliyah under the LOR if there is proof of even one Jewish grandparent. One need not be Jewish in keeping with the definition of Jewish law.
But there is yet another type of visa – a student visa – that requires the same proof as eligibility for Aliyah. If one wishes to study at a non-degree granting institution (e.g. The Conservative Yeshiva, Machon Pardes) one must come into the country (this depends on your country of origin) with a student visa obtained in advance. The stringent, too often off-the-wall, demands for documentation have turned the proof of eligibility under the LOR to frustration and disappointment for so many.
Case one: A young man from Hungary wishes to come on a Masa educational program. He applied on the basis of his grandfather having been Jewish. He lacked direct proof but his great-uncle (his grandfather’s brother) had made Aliyah from Hungary after the War. That great-uncle was registered as Jewish and buried as a Jew. Thus, obviously, his grandfather was Jewish. Not good enough, he was told. You need birth certificates for both your great-uncle and your grandfather so as to prove they were brothers born to the same mother. That way we can know for certain that if one was a Jew then so was the other. He obtained the birth certificates. Seems that too was not good enough. How, asked the Nefesh B’Nefesh representative in Hungary when I called to ask her how and why this was not enough, could they know that his great uncle was born a Jew? Maybe he converted to Judaism after the war upon making Aliyah? Now proof of the great-great grandmother is being demanded. For God’s sake, at a time when young people of Jewish roots are coming out of the woodwork and seeking to strengthen their ties to the Jewish people – our Interior Ministry forces them to jump through hoops. The young man wants only to come to study here in Israel for a few months.
Case two: A young man was born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. The mother subsequently converted to Judaism. The child was raised and educated as a Jew but never went through conversion. He has a letter from a rabbi (the rabbi is not affiliated with any particular denomination) stating that his father is Jewish. He has proof that his father’s father was born a Jew, survived the Holocaust, and moved to the States. His grandfather was buried as a Jew. His grandmother, the grandfather’s firt wife was murdered by the Nazis. Proof enough that he has rights under the LOR? So far – no.
It is not only right, but it is proper, that the Interior Ministry have realistic criteria for those seeking to come to Israel. But this ministry should not stand in front of iron gates keeping out all who have not met their subjective standard of exactly what constitutes this proof. And must the proof really be identical for requesting a student visa as to what is demanded for one who wishes to make Aliyah? In one case a person is requesting citizenship while in the other simply to study in Israel. I think there is a bit more room for leniency regarding a student visa.
Let me be clear about something. Anybody can claim to be a Jew. Anyone may claim to be a rabbi. Anyone can mock up a certificate of conversion to Judaism. There is a need for vigilance. But, in the end, we are speaking about a student visa.
Case three: Five Abayudaya (from the Jewish community in Uganda) have been accepted to a Masa program that combines study at the Conservative Yeshiva with study at Kibbutz Ketura. It has now been almost three years that they have been seeking to participate in this program. Is Masa at fault? They are not. They have tried to be helpful. Is the Jewish Agency at fault? No, they have issued a letter recognizing the Abayudaya as a “recognized Jewish community.”
So just who is at fault? It begins, and probably ends, with the Interior Ministry. Regarding the Abayudaya we were told by the pervious Interior Minister that “we need to study the matter of Africa.” Well, the officials over at the Interior Ministry may be busy doing a doctorate on the subject as there has been no progress. The response is that the matter is still under study and in the hands of the current Minister of the Interior.
For those who love to suggest that this is all because they are not real Jews; only Orthodox Judaism is the real thing – you are entitled to this misconception. But many Orthodox converts find themselves in similar circumstances. They are held hostage to small minded bureaucrats who have inhabited the Interior Ministry, and continue to do so, with that ministry back in the hands of the Shas political party.
The Ministry for Diaspora Affairs is discussing the investment of tens of millions of dollars in “emerging Jewish communities” and communities of Phyllo-Jews. But too many of those who are already a part of the Jewish community (either Jewish or eligible under the Law of Return) are treated in such ugly ways.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has promised that all Jews must be made to feel at home in the Holy Land. They need to get here first for that to happen.