Convert’s nightmarish three-year quest for citizenship continues

From Baltimore’s notorious drug gangs to the Jewish State, David Ben Moshe continues to hope for Israeli citizenship.

David Ben Moshe together with his wife and child (photo credit: COURTESY DAVID BEN MOSHE)
David Ben Moshe together with his wife and child
An Orthodox convert with a criminal past in Baltimore’s drug gangs who turned his life around, married in Israel, and applied for citizenship under the Law of Return two and a half years ago, continues to face a nightmarish bureaucratic struggle in his effort to settle in the Jewish state.
Despite being a committed member of his synagogue, a taxpayer, husband, father and social justice activist, David Ben Moshe has experienced intense difficulties in his everyday life due to his inability to gain citizenship – and continues to face rejection by the State of Israel.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Ben Moshe lamented that the Jewish principle of tshuva, repairing one’s life, does not appear to have foundation in the Jewish state.
David Ben Moshe, 33, was born and grew up in Maryland in the US, and eventually fell in with Baltimore’s notorious drug gangs, leading to an eventual conviction and jail sentence on drug and firearms charges.
He was sentenced to prison in 2010 for 30 months. While serving his sentence, he was stuck in the prison library during a security lockdown and noticed someone studying a book in a script he did not recognize or understand. It was a Jewish religious text.
After expressing an interest in the text, he embarked on a process of growing affinity with Judaism – so much so that his very first call after being released from prison on parole in 2012 was to his local synagogue.
He finally converted in 2017 through Rabbi Etan Mintz of the Orthodox B'nai Israel synagogue in Baltimore, and came to Israel in July for a nine-week study trip at the Pardes institute, during which time he met the woman who would eventually become his wife.
Ben Moshe has worked as a personal trainer for nine years. He obtained a degree in exercise science from Towson University in 2017, graduating with a 4.0 grade average.
He received a Masa grant to come to Israel and won a social justice fellowship from Pardes. While in Israel, he has been involved in social justice activities, including providing exercise training for special needs children.
In August 2018, he married through the rabbinate and his marriage is formally registered in the Interior Ministry. He participates every day in prayer services, has been an active member of his synagogues, first in Beit Zayit and then in Motza, and is a much loved and respected member of his community, as testified to by four rabbis with whom he is close and who have written letters to the Interior Ministry on his behalf.
But despite all these achievements and milestones, the State of Israel continues to deny Ben Moshe the right to citizenship, something which has hurt him and his wife deeply on an emotional level, caused heavy financial burdens, and made everyday life extremely difficult.
He originally applied for citizenship in May 2018, but has been required to renew first his tourist visas and then his work visas on innumerable occasions, requiring interminable visits to local Interior Ministry branches, hours of waiting, bureaucratic obstructionism and humiliating questioning from ministry clerks and bureaucrats.
Currently, Ben David has a B1 work visa which is renewable every 12 months, but it means he has no state health insurance and must instead pay NIS 400 a month for health coverage despite paying income tax, when an average citizen spends about a tenth of that amount for health services.
He and his wife faced a NIS 5,000 hospital charge when she gave birth to their first child. She needed to go to the offices of the National Insurance Institute the day after giving birth to avoid the fee.
Employees have to pay additional monthly charges for employing someone who only has a B1 visa. Ben Moshe says he needs to provide documentation and spend numerous hours working on collating the relevant information for the bureaucratic processes he needs to suffer through to renew his visas and continue his effort to obtain citizenship.
Last month, the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry rejected his request for citizenship, noting his past criminal conviction and the fact that he had not spent nine months with the community he converted with after converting.
This was a requirement in the past but has generally been waived in recent years, especially when the authority is provided with evidence that the convert is an active member of a synagogue in Israel, testimony which Ben Moshe has provided.
MOST RECENTLY, he has sought to get an A5 visa, which would provide him with health insurance and a national identification number, something that would make everyday life much easier, including doing things as simple as filling up the car at a gas station.
But even that process has been encumbered by hellish and Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
To get the A5 visa, Ben Moshe requested to change his status with the Population and Immigration Authority to “in a married relationship with an Israeli citizen.”
This would also provide an alternative, if extended, track to citizenship, not available under his current status and visa.
This status was originally denied to Ben Moshe and his wife since, due to a quirk of Israeli law, it is only available to couples who married in a civil ceremony, and not to a marriage done through the rabbinate as he and his wife did.
To resolve this problem, the couple went to Maryland in February to have a civil marriage, with the intention of registering it back in Israel and obtaining the upgraded visa status.
Last week, when they finally had an interview at the Interior Ministry to obtain this status, Ben Moshe was told that he could not acquire “married to an Israeli citizen” status because, incredibly, his wife was already registered as married – to Ben Moshe.
Since his wife is a citizen and married him through the rabbinate, a marriage registered by the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry, the ministry clerk said she was unable to now register them as civilly married.
Instead, Ben Moshe’s B1 visa was extended for another 12 months, leaving him with the same problems as before.
IN THE MEANTIME, the Itim religious services advisory organization is set to appeal the Interior Ministry’s refusal to recognize his citizenship and has threatened to take his case to court if citizenship is not granted.
“The worst thing about this situation is what it is doing to my wife and daughter,” Ben Moshe told the Post on Sunday.
“It is very difficult going to sleep every night and realizing that your wife, who is a citizen and was treated fairly and with full rights, has been dragged into being a second-class citizen, constantly having to drop everything and have her life put on hold because she married me,” he said.
“I have lived my entire life knowing I could never expect to be treated equally – that is the sad reality. But bringing someone else into that feels like I have done a terrible wrong,” Ben Moshe lamented.
“I have made mistakes in the past, but I feel like I bring value to the community. But until the day I die, I will always be punished for my past. There is no tshuva [repentance] option in the State of Israel.”
Itim director Rabbi Seth Farber said that Ben Moshe was “a victim of institutionalized discrimination against converts,” and that his conversion and commitment to Judaism fit all the criteria that the State of Israel puts forward to gain citizenship.
“Judaism is predicated on the notion that human beings are infinitely valuable,” said Farber.
“The behavior of the Interior Ministry should be investigated, as this is not the first time Itim has represented righteous converts who were denied their rights to make aliyah [immigrate],” he said.
“Particularly at this difficult time, the government of Israel has a great responsibility to show compassion and embrace those who have tied their future to that of the Jewish people,” Farber said. “I hope and pray that our appeal will not fall upon deaf ears.”
The Population and Immigration Authority said in response that “the applicant has a criminal history and the reason that he has only been given a residency permit stems from these reasons and no other ones.”
Despite this response, Ben Moshe has received no fewer than three official legal responses from the Interior Ministry stating that his request for citizenship was denied due to the fact that his  conversion is not recognized, including one letter from January 2019, another from August 2020 and another from November 2020.
"While the ministry has provided written evidence that it investigated my criminal record over a period of nine months in a letter to former MK Michael Oren, it has not produced a single written statement that my criminal record is an impediment to my aliyah process," said Ben Moshe.