A Jewish convert’s hunger strike for Israeli citizenship

David Ben Moshe is Orthodox, married to an Israeli, and a father of two, but that is not enough for Israel's Interior Ministry. So he protested.

 David Ben Moshe hunger strike. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
David Ben Moshe hunger strike.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

“Here, we are on hunger strike,” the large sign read in black and red colors.

Holding it was David Ben Moshe, a convert of African-American descent, who started a hunger strike on Thursday in front of the Interior Ministry office in downtown Jerusalem as part of a last-ditch effort to get something he believes he deserves: Israeli citizenship.

Ben Moshe has been living in Israel for more than four years. He is married to an Israeli woman, has two children, and has been battling for years with the Interior Ministry to receive the Israeli citizenship to which he is entitled under the Law of Return.

To this day, he has been refused citizenship on various grounds that according to him, do not fit with the requirements of Israeli law.

As a last resort, Ben Moshe said on Thursday that he decided to go on a hunger strike in protest of the continued discrimination he has suffered at the hands of the government of Israel.

 David Ben Moshe (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) David Ben Moshe (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

“Now I am demanding my teudat oleh (immigrant’s card) immediately,” he said. “I am officially on a hunger strike, and I intend to stay in front of the ministry until my request is granted and I have a teudat oleh in my hand.”

Under the Law of Return, Jews who ask for Israeli citizenship can be denied if they have a criminal record. That is what happened in November 2020, when the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority rejected the request that Ben Moshe – who spent two years in an American jail – submitted for citizenship.

It noted his past criminal conviction, and that he had not spent nine months with the community he converted with after completing his conversion, a technical requirement not usually enforced.

Ben Moshe doesn’t hide his past. It happened over 13 years ago, when he fell in with Baltimore’s notorious drug gangs in his youth, leading to an eventual conviction on drug and firearms charges.

He was sentenced to prison in 2010 for 30 months. While serving his time, he was stuck in the prison library during a security lockdown and noticed someone studying a Jewish religious text. It set him on a journey that culminated in an Orthodox conversion in 2017 under the auspices of Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’nai Israel in Baltimore, and he subsequently came to Israel on a study trip.

In December 2020, after a report in The Jerusalem Post, Ben Moshe finally gained recognition of his conversion by the Interior Ministry and received a temporary residency permit.

Nevertheless, what was supposed to end in citizenship has yet to happen.

“But I was refused again because the ministry needed to deal with my criminal record,” he explained on Thursday. “The three and a half years I had already been in the country, without incident, and my character references were not enough proof that I likely did not endanger public welfare.”

Ben Moshe does not explicitly say that his skin color may be the explanation for the Interior Ministry’s bizarre conduct, but members of his community – an egalitarian Modern Orthodox minyan in Beersheba where he lives with his wife and two children – who accompanied him on his hunger strike hinted that it may be the explanation.

Ben Moshe admits he has a criminal record, but says with bitterness that the government found it harder to allow him to continue his law-abiding Jewish life in Israel than to assist Malka Leifer, a suspected sex criminal recently deported to Australia to stand trial.

“I am not on the run from the law, I fully paid my debt to society, and have repeatedly proven that I changed my ways and have given so much back to the communities I am a part of,” he said. “The criminal in my current case is the Interior Ministry, which has repeatedly broken the law to prevent me from becoming a citizen.”

Ben Moshe bemoans the interrogations he underwent at the Population Registry offices, during which he was asked questions such as why he does not look like a regular convert, why he wears such a small kippah, and even how it could be that his wife’s parents, white American Jews, agreed that he marry their daughter.

Ben Moshe said that the way the government of Israel is treating him is completely unacceptable. On the other hand, “the Jewish community here is welcoming, warm, they all accepted me, people at shul care and host me.”

His patience, he explained, is now up, and he will no longer tolerate the ongoing abuse.

In response to a query from The Post, the Population and Immigration Authority said: “The subject is an American citizen who submitted a request to receive status due to conversion and because he is in Israel. After reviewing the case and details, he was told that due to reasons he knows well, he cannot be granted permanent status in Israel and only a temporary permit, which has already been granted.”