Waiting in Zion

Despite years of struggle over Israeli legal status, J'lem-based rapper Joel Covington wants to stay.

joel covington rapper298 (photo credit: Vadim Michailov)
joel covington rapper298
(photo credit: Vadim Michailov)
"I am 27 years old, and I've lived my adult life in Israel," declares American-born Joel Covington, who is also known as the rapper Rebel Sun. "This is where I want to be." Covington, his wife Shoshana, and their two daughters (who were both born in Jerusalem) are currently awaiting the results of an appeal they have filed with the Interior Ministry after receiving a letter in August demanding that they leave the country. This is the culmination of many years of struggle over their legal status in Israel. They came as a newly married couple in 1999 on a tourist visa. Of African-American ancestry, they both had become intensely interested in Judaism at a young age. "I wanted to see the country, and I had done a lot of research because of my religious faith and beliefs," says Joel. "We wanted to see if we would stay here." After some brief trials and tribulations they decided to make a go of it. Shoshana was accepted at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and subsequently she applied for a student visa. As the husband of a student, Joel should qualify for a tourist visa for the duration of her studies. "They never gave us the student visa, and they never gave us a reason," he recalls. "Since then, we have been in this limbo status." They appealed to the Ministry of Interior and acquired an "in-progress" stamp on their passports. So they are not technically living in Israel illegally - they're just not living completely legally, either, since they have been "in progress" for five years. During this whole time they haven't left the country for fear that they wouldn't be able to return. The Covingtons thus somewhat precariously settled down to a life in Jerusalem. Over the next several years they had two daughters, and despite not having a student visa (the University does not have a policy of checking the visa status of their students) Shoshana completed her Bachelors degree in International Relations at Hebrew University. She is currently working towards her MA in the same discipline and is described in a letter by Dr. Eitan Barak of the Department of International Relations to the Interior Ministry as an "outstanding success" with "a tremendous dedication to study" and "an easy sociability that has facilitated her adjustment to the Israeli environment." Joel delved deep into studying Torah and also returned to his musical roots - for the past three years he's fronted the popular soul/hip-hop band Coolooloosh. Due to his influence on the capital's hip-hop scene he is called by some the grandfather of all MC's (Master of Ceremonies, a rapper) in Jerusalem. Coolooloosh's music is a modern urban mix of funk, soul, and hip-hop with some reggae and electronica elements. As Rebel Sun, Covington provides true street credibility to the ensemble with his English language rhymes, tight delivery and passionate wordplay. Comprised of both secular and religious members - one member is a Breslov Hassid while others are self described secular leftists - the group has maintained a busy concert schedule and released their debut album, entitled simply Coolooloosh, in February 2005. The Covingtons are supported by help from their families and Shoshana has received a US Federal scholarship for her studies. The money from Coolooloosh performances is being saved by the band for a time when Joel can earn the money legally. They have applied for a student visa four times; the last time was a year and a half ago and they employed an attorney. The result, long in arriving, was the letter of 9 August 2005, which stated that "all the family must leave the country immediately." According to the Covingtons, no reason for the deportation edict was stated in the letter. At that point, the band members of Coolooloosh became involved, most notably guitarist Yuval Gerstein. "Three years together, but we didn't know the whole story until the letter came," says Gerstein. "Then we realized that we had to do something." The band hired lawyer Yehoshua Cremer to be their new legal counsel, started a petition and obtained several letters of recommendation for the Covingtons. They also organized a series of concerts. Since Joel AKA Rebel Sun is a known performer, their situation has received some attention from the Hebrew-language media and has become something of a cause celebre among the Israeli hip-hop community. "It's amazing that they want to get rid of this family," says Coolooloosh bassist Ori Winoker. "They bring money here, buy food and clothing and contribute to the economy. They want to become Israelis and there aren't many who do." "We want to convert and make aliyah," explains Joel. "We have wanted to for a while." But in Israel, conversions can only be undertaken by those with a legal visa, so given their current status they cannot even begin. Presumably if their request for a visa is approved they will start the conversion process and end up as "bona fide" olim. "I'll join the IDF if they want me," he says. Both the Covingtons and the members of Coolooloosh are loath to say that there is a racist element in their situation, but Joel is forthright about some of his experiences in Israel. "After the first few months, we really had to consider if we wanted to stay...being called kushi ("Darkie") to your face, praying with people who won't say shalom to you afterwards...of course it's not everyone. But [our visa problems] are not isolated, all the converts I know from the US have had similar problems." With the help of their new lawyer the Covingtons have filed yet another appeal, this time against the deportation order, and have re-applied yet again for a student visa for Shoshana. They have yet to receive a reply and so are still in limbo, waiting to see what their future holds. At the time of this writing the Ministry of the Interior has not replied to In Jerusalem's query regarding their case. "I don't know what the problem is," Joel relates. "Since taking this public they've given us different reasons, like that they didn't know Shoshana was a student, but I want to see the real reason officially." "I hope it's all just a bureaucratic mistake," he laughs. "I really do."