'Shaliach let bogus converts make aliya'

Dozens of Venezuelan olim may lose citizenship after emissary's arrest.

nefesh aliya 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
nefesh aliya 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The fate of dozens of immigrants from Venezuela hung in the balance Wednesday night as police revealed what they claimed was a large-scale attempt by a Jewish Agency representative to boost immigration numbers by allowing people with questionable conversions to make aliya. If, as detectives of the Immigration Authority believe, Ra'anana resident and Jewish Agency representative in South America Ilan Architecter, 66, aided dozens of people in circumventing Jewish Agency rules for aliya qualification, those people could lose their citizenship - or at least their immigration benefits. Immigration Authority Intelligence and Investigations Chief Asst.-Cmdr. Dorit Ben-Meir said her organization had no desire - or legal basis - to jail the émigrés in holding facilities usually reserved for illegal foreign workers. The Interior Ministry, however, is qualified to take actions such as stripping immigrants of their status. The investigation began in 2007, when police received intelligence information casting doubt on the legitimacy of certain South American immigrants' conversion papers, said Ben-Meir. Following that trail of information, the Immigration Authority arrested a mother and her son who were found to possess dozens of conversion certificates, most of which were supposedly issued in 2006. Upon a further check by investigators, it was discovered that most of the people listed on the certificates had only begun the conversion process in 2007. Ben-Meir described the woman as a "central activist" in Venezuelan conversion programs. Following the pair's arrest and the subsequent discovery of the certificates, Immigration Authority investigators initiated a months-long probe into Architecter's actions. During the investigation, detectives found a hub of activity in the Andean city of San Cristobal, a town of around 234,000 near the Colombian border that boasts one synagogue. The probe led police to believe that since assuming his position in 2003, Architecter had allowed dozens of Venezuelans to make aliya. The would-be immigrants were allegedly passed through a speedy conversion process and then came to Israel claiming all of the rights of new immigrants, including an immigration basket worth tens of thousands of shekels. Under normal circumstances, non-Jews interested in immigrating to Israel as Jewish citizens are supposed to undergo a full conversion process overseas, after which they are required to live for at least one full year in the overseas Jewish community before receiving the okay from a local Jewish Agency immigration representative. The representative is, among other things, responsible for checking the conversion documentation to make sure that everything is "kosher." In this case, however, investigators believe that Architecter himself tracked down people who were interested in immigrating and put them in touch with one specific rabbi. In some instances, police claim, the rabbi "converted them in an incomplete manner" and sometimes "not according to the Interior Ministry's rules" - for instance, not living a full year in the local Jewish community. In other instances, police suspect, the conversion certificates were signed before the conversion process was completed. In the course of the investigation, Ben-Meir said, Immigration Authority officers "intercepted" three would-be immigrants who were all suspected of entering under false premises. Under questioning, investigators said Wednesday, Architecter admitted that he had known that the rabbi was not credible and that in Israel he was not recognized as an acceptable authority for issuing conversion certificates. He argued that because of the importance of encouraging as many people as possible to make aliya, he had been willing to turn a blind eye to the rabbi's inconsistencies. Architecter's efforts seem to have paid off in the short term - he received an award of excellence from the Jewish Agency for his success in encouraging immigration, and his term in office was extended by an additional year. Almost 300 Venezuelans have immigrated to Israel in recent years, and police now believe that a significant proportion of them have come under false pretenses. Following the investigation, the Immigration Authority approached the Jewish Agency with a request to recall the emissary from South America for questioning. Architecter was officially summoned back to Israel last Thursday and was in the country by Monday. Arrested Tuesday, Architecter was brought before the Ramle Magistrate's Court Wednesday, where his remand was extended until Thursday. The Immigration Authority emphasized Wednesday that the Jewish Agency had fully cooperated with the investigators throughout the entire process, which the Jewish Agency affirmed. "The Jewish Agency has always been committed to ensuring a proper and legal immigration process to the State of Israel," wrote the organization in an official response to the allegations against its employee. "Therefore, from the outset, the Jewish Agency has been assisting the Israel Police in its investigation and for this purpose has especially flown to Israel one of its emissaries. The Jewish Agency expresses its hope that the investigation will seek out the truth as soon as possible, and will assist the police in doing so."