‘Justice has finally been done’

Solution reached in Knesset on Venezuelan converts’ aliya

MK AVRAHAM NEGUISE (second left) addresses the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs yesterday. (photo credit: Courtesy)
MK AVRAHAM NEGUISE (second left) addresses the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs yesterday.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“Justice has finally been done,” the leader of a group of nine Venezuelan Jews told The Jerusalem Post after a solution was reached over their rejected aliya applications on Tuesday.
A stormy, highly charged debate held by the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs resulted in a compromise to bring the group to Israel, after the Interior Ministry said the applicants did not meet the requirements for converts to make aliya due to a lack of affiliation with a recognized Jewish community prior to their conversions.
The solution reached was that the nine Venezuelans, who had gone through a Conservative conversion, would immediately be converted again in Latin America by a Conservative rabbi and would then be allowed to come straight to Israel on A5 visas.
According to the Interior Ministry's requirements for converts, after at least nine months of affiliation with a recognized Jewish community in Israel following this second conversion, they will then be eligible for citizenship.
“We are happy,” said Juan Ferreira (real name withheld), who is considered the leader of the small community of converts from the rural town of Maracay, which consists of three families.
But he described the fact that they must convert a second time as “madness,” but said it was “symbolic in some way,” and that if this was what the Jewish Agency and Interior Ministry wanted, then so be it.
MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union), who initiated the Knesset discussion, welcomed the decision with tears in her eyes, as her voice cracked with emotion. But she expressed deep regret, saying she was “outraged at the humiliation that Conservative Jews are required to endure,” a sentiment echoed by leaders of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement who were present at the meeting and also believe that Orthodox converts would have received different treatment – a claim refuted by Interior Ministry representatives.
“This is a humanitarian case. These are our fellow Jews, brothers and sisters whose lives are in danger. What happened to the brotherhood of Jews in the Diaspora?” Cohen Paran asked.
“Where is our concern for our brothers in the Diaspora? We must allow them to come to Israel immediately, particularly due to special circumstances,” she continued. “The Law of Return does not differentiate between the nature of the conversion process, Orthodox or Conservative conversions are recognized, and these Jews are entitled to immigrate to Israel.
“We see a different policy toward those non-Orthodox converts to Judaism, but these streams represent millions of Jews around the world. I do not accept the excuses of the Interior Ministry. The ministry creates a Kafkaesque process which these Jews have no way out of! The decisions are made on a political basis just because these are non-Orthodox converts,” she said.
Leading Conservative Rabbi Andy Sacks, who has been fighting on behalf of the nine Venezuelans, said the converts had not been part of a recognized community previously because in Latin America, converts are not accepted in such communities.
Sacks described the decision reached as “absurd,” asking sarcastically if the converts must undergo a second brit mila (circumcision) too. But noting the dangerous situation the converts were living in, two of them having been robbed – one at knife-point and the other by force – in recent days, he said there was no question that they would accept the solution offered to them.
“We have no choice,” Yizhar Hess, executive director and CEO of the Masorti Movement, said angrily, saying they would agree to the compromise because people’s lives were at stake. But he accused the government of “spitting in the face of millions and saying they are second-class Jews,” charging the Interior Ministry with throwing them under the bus.
“What we’re being asked to do in order to bring people who everyone agrees are serious, committed Jews now to Israel is ridiculous and insulting, but we’ll do it because it’s a matter of life and death,” Peretz Rodman, Av Beit Din of the Masorti Movement, told the Post.
MK Avraham Neguise, chairman of the Knesset committee that facilitated the meeting, calmly mediated the heated debate between lawmakers, Jewish Agency officials, Masorti Movement leaders and Interior Ministry representatives.
Mazal Cohen and attorney Dassy Tsangan of the Interior Ministry fended off accusations of racism, discrimination and narrow- mindedness, repeating that the matter concerned criterion alone.
Despite visible tensions in the room, the meeting ended with agreement from all parties involved. “We are going to save these families – I’m happy there is an agreement,” said Neguise, who had placed an emphasis on the humanitarian situation in Venezuela and the subsequent urgency of bringing the group to Israel as soon as possible.
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky released a statement welcoming the acceptance of the deal, saying, “In light of the unique circumstances and challenges of this particular case, the Jewish Agency proposed a compromise that would enable the individuals in question to come to Israel in a manner consistent with Israeli law, particularly the Law of Return. I am pleased that our compromise was accepted by all parties at today’s Knesset hearing on the matter and that the individuals in question will be able to come to Israel without delay.”
Jewish Agency spokesman Avi Mayer told the Post the solution was largely based on a proposal Sharansky had made during discussions between the relevant parties on the matter in recent months. But Uri Perednik, Neguise’s spokesperson, gave a different version of events, saying, “The solution was based on what was brought up in the discussion today.”
Also present at the meeting was an International Fellowship of Christians and Jews representative, who offered to fly the Venezuelans to Israel and provide them with assistance and support during their first months in Israel.
IFCJ president Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein hailed the outcome of the meeting, saying, “The fellowship believes there cannot be a situation where cumbersome bureaucracy is conducted on the backs of people who have undergone a conversion process and seek to make aliya to Israel.
“This matter is even more severe when these people are in a country that is in the midst of a deep crisis and they are at risk of persistent hunger, crime and antisemitism,” Eckstein added. “From day one, we demanded that these Jews be allowed to come to Israel and that the debate be conducted in a level-headed fashion, while their safety and well-being are guaranteed."