Symposium on immigration policy confounds mixed religion families

"There is a fear in the government that if restrictions are eased, too many non-Jews will enter."

family 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
family 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
After only two-and-a-half years in Israel, Tatiana Balster doesn't know if she'll be able to survive here for much longer. A doctor and former Russian citizen, Balster has been separated from her husband, Paul Comlan Zannou, for nearly six months thanks to impossible Israeli bureaucracy for Jewish citizens with non-Jewish spouses and relatives. "It's awful, I don't know how much longer we can survive on only my income," said the mother of two, who earns only NIS 3,000 a month. "I'm in a very difficult situation." Balster, who is Jewish, and Zannou are only one of roughly 1,000 mixed religion families in Israel struggling with confusing bureaucracy and an unclear path to citizenship for non-Jewish relatives of Jews, say the Association for the Rights of Mixed Families, which is set to hold a one-day symposium Thursday on "The Challenges of Immigration: Naturalization and Integration in Israel." Married for 17 years, Balster and her husband lived until recently in the Republic of Benin, West Africa. When they decided to make aliya three years ago, the family was told that because there is no Israeli diplomatic operation in the African state (the nearest embassy is in Abidjan, Ivory Coast), they would have to apply for immigration to Israel via Moscow. Balster flew to her former home city to start the process but was told that because her husband, a Benin native, was not Russian he could not travel to Israel via Moscow. "We were told that he could apply for citizenship once we had arrived in Israel," said Balster, whose parents live here and who had no problems obtaining citizenship for herself and her children. "We were fine for the first year and Paul received an A/5 [temporary resident] visa, but when that ran out and we went to reapply, we were turned down." At that point, said Balster, Zannou's mother in Benin took ill and her husband flew back home to be with her. That was in May, and since then her husband has been refused a visa to come back into the country, she said. An Interior Ministry spokeswoman told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that Zannou's request for citizenship was being processed but that it could take up to four years to be approved. She added that the fact he was no longer in the country could seriously jeopardize his chances of becoming an Israeli. A request for a response from the Foreign Ministry regarding the refusal to grant Zannou a visa to return to Israel was not immediately returned Wednesday. "If she [Tatiana] had spoken to us before Paul left then we would have advised him not to go, that it would damage his chances of being able to return," commented Itamar Shachar, spokesman of the Association of the Rights of Mixed Families. He said the aim of Thursday's conference was to raise awareness of the plight of such families who are "torn apart" and to demand that Israel initiate legislation to simplify the immigration process for mixed families. "We see this situation all the time," said Dr. Ludmilla Oigenblick, executive director of the association. "We want there to be legislation for mixed families during their first phase of immigration in order to ease the entire process. In some cases, people have to wait for 10 years to even get an answer from the Interior Ministry on their status. They spend years without any form of citizenship at all." Oigenblick is not only referring to mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews, but also to families that want to bring non-Jewish extended relatives into the country. "There is the fear [in the government] that if these restrictions are eased even a tiny bit then too many non-Jews will enter," she explained. "However, there has only been an increase of about four percent in non-Jewish relatives coming in over the past six years. We are talking about such a small amount of people." The association, she said, was not asking that the country change the Law of Return, which states only those with a Jewish parent or grandparent are entitled to aliya, but just that the state show leniency for those caught in such a predicament. "There just needs to be a clearer policy on this subject," continued Oigenblick. "For the past 16 years, the establishment has recognized there is a problem here and has talked extensively about it, but no one has put forward any good solutions on how to solve it." She said that Thursday's conference, which was to include presentations from foreign experts on how similar immigration issues are solved abroad, would also shed light on new legislation to be initiated by certain Knesset members in the coming months. While Oigenblick would not disclose which MKs are about to push for more acceptance of mixed families rights in Israel, the roster of attendees includes MKs Ze'ev Elkin (Kadima), Dov Henin (Hadash), Yossi Beilin (Meretz) and Robert Ilatov (Israel Beiteinu).