A look at the PIBA's 'culture of suspicion and hostility'

INTERNAL AFFAIRS: Inside the problems at the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry.

 THE POPULATION and Immigration Authority office in Jerusalem yesterday. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE POPULATION and Immigration Authority office in Jerusalem yesterday.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In 2018, the High Court of Justice ruled that officials within an agency in the Interior Ministry had to reexamine their decision to expel a non-Jewish woman from the country. 

The woman was a non-Jewish foreign national with an Israeli husband who had abused his wife and their child. 

Having separated from her husband because of his abusive behavior, her request for continued residency was rejected by the ministry officials despite her young daughter being an Israeli citizen and the woman’s wish to raise her child in Israel in the country where she was born. 

The agency that denied the woman the right to reside in Israel was the Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA), which is tasked with overseeing and processing requests for citizenship, residency and entry into Israel. 

The agency is headed by Tomer Moskowitz and is under the authority of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. 

 INTERIOR MINISTER Ayelet Shaked speaks at last month’s Jerusalem Post Conference. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) INTERIOR MINISTER Ayelet Shaked speaks at last month’s Jerusalem Post Conference. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In, recent years, organizations involved in assisting foreign nationals to gain citizenship or residency status in Israel, Jews and non-Jews alike, have noticed ever-increasing difficulties and increasing bureaucratic obstructionism in having these various applications approved.

And a pattern has now emerged in which senior officials in the organizations that deal with PIBA on a regular basis have identified the same problems in the attitude of the agency toward those requesting different forms of status in Israel, or merely entry into the country. 

These officials speak of a culture of intense suspicion within PIBA toward the many people who require its various visas, permits and other forms of approval and documentation required to allow them to reside, live, work and hold relationships in the State of Israel. 

As a result, numerous people who seek the assistance of PIBA have faced undue suffering and distress as a result of the suspicious and hostile attitude of this agency, which has far-reaching affects on how and where they can live their lives.

As The Jerusalem Post has reported in recent years, this has led to cases where people who are fully Jewish have been prevented from obtaining citizenship; non-Jews have had residency visas revoked even when in long-term relationships with Israelis; Jews and non-Jews alike have been treated with contempt at Ben-Gurion Airport; and many people’s lives have been negatively impacted by the behavior of the Population Authority. 

The Population and Immigration Authority is the agency of the Interior Ministry empowered to grant citizenship, issue work, residency, and student visas, and in general determine who can enter the country and who cannot, including tourists. 

Obtaining citizenship for many Jews, under the Law of Return, is relatively frictionless. They provide details of their Jewish status or heritage, which are passed on to the Jewish Agency, which processes their request and sends it on to the Population Authority for approval. 

But at other times, some Jews fall foul of PIBA’s intense suspicion of those with slightly more complex cases. 

So Ruth Katz, an eminent Jewish scientist and professor of pathology at the University of Texas, spent two years trying to make aliyah in the face of PIBA obstructionism, despite both her parents being kohanim; having an Orthodox rabbi and the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court confirm her Jewish credentials; and while three siblings of hers had previously been given citizenship.

For two years, PIBA demanded documentation that did not exist and rejected other forms of documentation she provided, which the Israeli Consulate in Texas had said was valid, while Katz was subjected to abusive behavior in the local PIBA branch where she presented her paperwork.

In another case, an Orthodox convert and committed member of his synagogue, who turned his life around after a criminal conviction in the US, and married through the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, is yet to receive citizenship under the Law of Return after four years of waiting.

PIBA initially told him that his conversion was not recognized, despite the Chief Rabbinate having approved it, and later said he was denied citizenship due to a drugs conviction in the US, despite the fact of his rehabilitation, stable family life, commitment to Judaism, and the positive testimony to his character by rabbis and other acquaintances. 

And just this week, Yosef Kibita, a member of the Abayudaya community of Jewish converts from Uganda who converted under the auspices of the US Conservative movement in 2008, has lived as a Jew for nearly 14 years, converted again through the Masorti Movement in Israel this year following a court request, and was for the second time denied citizenship by PIBA.

“I THINK there’s a culture of racism and classism in the authority that may be a remnant of decades of control by [the ultra-Orthodox] Shas [Party], and a sense of exactly who and what a Jew is, and if they don’t meet that image, then they have a problem,” said Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel of the Masorti Movement. “It is an ultra-Orthodox suspicion of the Jewishness of everyone, and that they are the guardians of the walls, trying to keep out non-Jews.”

Sacks said that this has been the attitude for most of the last two decades, “in which the Shas Party has for much of that time controlled the Interior Ministry,” and said that “this culture persists” without any real efforts to tackle it. 

A head of an important organization that frequently deals with PIBA on behalf of people it is assisting made similar comments about the general culture of the agency. 

“They assume that everyone is trying to deceive them and get around regulations or criteria,” said the organization’s director, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

“They see themselves as the guardians of the gates, defending the Jewish state, [but] there isn’t a sensitivity, among either the leadership or the clerks, to the diversity of the Jewish people around the world,” they said. 

One senior official in another organization that also interacts with PIBA on a regular basis, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, pointed to PIBA’s Legal Department as being especially problematic. 

The official said that many of the staff in the department are of a conservative mindset “who think their goal in life is keeping the gate shut.”

The source noted that when PIBA insists on receiving documentation it is told is unavailable, such as in Ruth Katz’s case, such demands often emanate from the Legal Department.

In addition, almost every important decision will go through this department, including cases involving converts. 

The official also noted that people entering the country under the Law of Entry, usually used by non-Jews, face particular problems with PIBA since under this law the agency does not have to provide reasoning for its decisions, meaning there is a legally inbuilt lack of accountability in such cases. 

Further problems include a very limited ability of clerks in regional PIBA branches to make decisions on anything other than standard cases, and the fact that officials in the head office usually do not meet with applicants but simply review their paperwork. 

So when the non-Jewish mother of three Israeli children who served in the IDF and whose recently deceased husband had been eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return applied for citizenship, PIBA refused her application. A High Court ruling in August this year enabled her to ultimately obtain citizenship.

“The general policy of the Interior Ministry is that they don’t want anyone non-Jewish in the country. That was [former interior minister and Shas chairman Arye] Deri’s attitude, and it has been shared by other ministers as well,” said the source. 

“There is also a clear lack of understanding of the Jewish Diaspora and life outside of Israel,” the official said, and a belief that applicants for citizenship and status are trying to take advantage of Israel’s prosperity. 

DURING THE course of the COVID-19 pandemic, PIBA’s hostility to those without Israeli citizenship has been continually highlighted by its role in dealing with foreign nationals seeking to enter the country, be they Jewish or non-Jewish, and those seeking to extend their residency visas here. 

The Post has recently reported on numerous complaints from foreign travelers about being subjected to abusive behavior by PIBA officials at Ben-Gurion Airport, including the confiscation of their passports, threats to handcuff them, ban them from the country and other forms of intimidation.

Recently, two Jewish visitors from South Africa who are friends of the family of Eli Kay, killed in a terrorist attack last month, who came to give support to the family, were ejected from the country and forced to violate Shabbat because the entry regulations changed while they were in the air en route to Israel, and were treated “like criminals,” in their words, by aggressive and belligerent PIBA officials. 

Dozens if not hundreds of foreign nationals have experienced similar treatment, with the theme of being treated “like a criminal” in the airport frequently being expressed. 

And complaints have also been made that PIBA has failed to implement what its stated policies are.

So when an exemption was made on the ban on foreign nationals entering the country for the first-degree relatives of parents making a bar or bat mitzvah celebration, PIBA failed to inform Israeli consulates around the world about the exemption, leading to mass rejections of what were valid entry requests. 

The same issue occurred this week for the foreign national parents of pregnant women living in Israel, who were told they were able to gain entry but had their entry applications rejected by Israeli consulates because PIBA had not informed them of the new policy. 

The head of another organization that deals frequently with PIBA on such issues said that the agency and its officials have demonstrated “complete apathy and lack of consideration” toward those seeking to enter the country. 

“There is a cultural problem in the organization that they think they have to be bullies. It starts from the top. They see it as flexing their muscles to show how strong they are. 

“There is almost a disdain for Diaspora Jewry, and they do not understand Jews from abroad.”

IN RESPONSE to these comments and concerns, PIBA said:

“The Population and Immigration Authority deals with tens of thousands of immigrants every year, and does so professionally, politely, and out of a high sense of service – as all the immigrants who received service from us would testify.

“In addition, the authority organizes intensive days to provide status to new immigrants in cooperation with the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh.

“Contrary to what has been claimed, eligibility is based on examinations by the professional officials responsible for the issue – the Jewish Agency and Nativ.

“The service is provided out of an understanding of the powers given to us, professionally and without external, non-pertinent considerations and in accordance with the law and regulations.

“Unfortunately, the allegations raised seem to stem from non-pertinent considerations.”•