Would you let these people move to Israel?

The game that lets you decide who to let in and who to keep out.

ETHIOPIAN CHILDREN attend Jewish studies class while awaiting immigration to Israel, in Gondar. (photo credit: ELIANA APONTE/REUTERS)
ETHIOPIAN CHILDREN attend Jewish studies class while awaiting immigration to Israel, in Gondar.
More than 250,000 immigrants from 150 countries settled in Israel over the past 10 years, according to figures recently released by the Jewish Agency. Those statistics made for celebratory headlines as we ushered in a new decade. Some, however, sought to deflate the celebration by charging that a great many of the country’s new citizens are not actually Jewish. In the back-and-forth that ensued, left out were those who weren’t let in.
That brings us to the game of Border Patrol. Instructions follow. Read them carefully. The fate of thousands is now in your hands.
Below are the stories of several individuals whose requests to come to Israel have been rejected. They have all appealed the verdict and your job is to decide whose petition should be granted and whose refused. Here are the circumstances of just a few of those knocking on our door. The names have been changed but the cases are genuine.
Anna, from Poland, granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor
Anna, a young Jew from Warsaw, participated in a Birthright-Taglit Israel program a couple of years ago. Back in Poland, she began working part-time in the local Hillel. She now wants to immigrate to Israel but has run into problems proving her eligibility to make aliyah. Her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, is Jewish. According to the Law of Return, that in and of itself should be enough to entitle her to move to Israel, but the papers she’s submitted attesting to that have inexplicably been deemed insufficient.
In any case, Anna, recognizing that having a Jewish grandfather does not make her Jewish according to traditional Jewish law, went through an Orthodox conversion. Her beit din (conversion court), however, is not recognized by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, so that hasn’t done the trick. Neither has the letter she has certifying that she is Jewish beyond any doubt despite being signed by Poland’s chief rabbi, whose Orthodox synagogue she is active in.
Do you let Anna in or not? If yes, because of her Jewish grandfather or her unrecognized Orthodox conversion?
Jon from the United States, adopted when seven months old
At the age of seven months, Jon was adopted by a Jewish couple in Boston who then saw to it that he have a brit mila (circumcision) in a traditional ceremony overseen by their rabbi and cantor, followed shortly thereafter by a formal conversion, including immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath). Jewish tradition would continue to be integral to his life throughout the years. He grew up in a Jewish home, attended religious school, went to a Jewish summer camp, had a bar mitzvah, celebrates all of the Jewish holidays, was active in Hillel at college, participated in a Birthright-Taglit Israel trip, and now wants to make aliyah.
His application has been rejected, however, on the grounds that he can’t produce an original certificate of conversion. His parents don’t recall ever receiving one, and a letter from a rabbi certifying all of the above has been deemed insufficient evidence to allow him to settle in the Jewish homeland as he has long dreamed of doing.
Do you let Jon in or not? If yes, because you believe the story about his conversion or because his commitment to Jewish life is good enough for you?
Kabede from Ethiopia, stranded in Gondar
In 2015, the government of Israel adopted a decision to bring home the remnants of the Ethiopian Jewish community languishing in Addis Ababa and Gondar. Their Jewish ancestry is uncontested, but their eligibility to make aliyah under the Law of Return is debatable due to conversions of their forbearers. They were therefore to be brought to Israel in accordance with the Law of Entry, which allows the interior minister to permit people to move here on the grounds of family reunification.
However, a number of additional criteria were imposed upon the potential immigrants, leaving an estimated 9,000 of them stranded in conditions of abject poverty, some for over 20 years. Those stipulations include having a first-degree relative already in Israel. Thus the saga of Kabede. His parents died when he was a toddler and he was brought up by his grandmother. Her surviving children, Kabede’s mother’s siblings, were allowed to move to Israel back in 2004, but for reasons that are unclear, she was not. Then last June, after more than 15 years of separation, she was finally permitted to join them. But she was forced to leave Kabede behind, as he has no first-degree relatives in Israel, though also no other family in Ethiopia.
Do you let Kabede in or not? If yes, on humanitarian grounds or because you believe all members of the Jewish community awaiting aliyah in Ethiopia should be allowed in, even if their Jewish status is questionable?
Rivka from Nicaragua, fearing persecution
Rivka lives in Nicaragua and is an active member of a community comprised largely of those who trace their ancestry back to the Conversos, the Jews of Portugal and Spain forcibly converted to Catholicism under the Inquisition. She even has records indicating that she is of Jewish lineage on the maternal side all the way back to then. Nevertheless, like the vast majority of those in her congregation, she underwent a rigorous Orthodox conversion after two full years of study in order to dispel any doubts of her Jewishness and has maintained an ultra-religious lifestyle for years.
A single mother, she now wants to make aliyah with her two sons, but her Jewish credentials are not accepted by the State of Israel, despite letters she has submitted from esteemed Orthodox rabbis attesting to her Jewish status. Currently she complains of being unable to give her children the kind of Jewish education she would like them to have, while at the same time facing ongoing threats of violence that characterize the life of Nicaragua’s Jews today.
Do you let Rivka in or not? If yes, does her claim of Jewish ancestry figure into your consideration?
Shimon of the Abayudaya, deported
Shimon is affiliated with the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda, all of whom have undergone conversion through the auspices of the Conservative movement. The community was officially recognized by the Jewish Agency back in 2016. A year ago Shimon arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, a valid tourist visa in hand, with the intention of spending a few weeks studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Instead, he was detained at the airport overnight and deported the next morning without being given any explanation or opportunity to appeal.
The official responsible for the decision later told the Knesset’s Aliyah Committee that the reason for the deportation was that non-Jews can’t study at a yeshiva, at one and the same time denying the Jewishness of the Abayudaya and closing the door of Jewish learning to those who would immerse themselves in serious study prior to conversion. Despite being so spurned, Shimon now wants to come to Israel for a yearlong program of Jewish studies with the intention of returning home as a spiritual leader of his community.
Do you let Shimon in or not? If yes, just to study or would you also allow him to make aliyah if he wanted to?
Benjamin from the United States, a black Jew aspiring to the rabbinate
Benjamin, born a black American, became interested in Judaism as a teenager and began attending a Jewish summer camp. After years of studying Judaism, being active in his local synagogue, learning Hebrew, receiving a security clearance to work in the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and living as an observant Jew, he eventually converted. Immediately thereafter, his application to attend a rabbinical school in Jerusalem was accepted.
His application for aliyah, however, was not, on the grounds that he spent insufficient time preparing for his conversion, despite the testimony of the three rabbis who comprised his beit din that he was well-qualified, and not a long enough period in his community after the conversion to prove the sincerity of his commitment to the Jewish people and the Jewish faith – his intention to become a rabbi notwithstanding.
Do you let Benjamin in or not? Would you want to know what sort of conversion he went through – Reform, Conservative or Orthodox – before making your decision?
Avraham from Bosnia, pillar of his community whose conversion was invalidated
Avraham, a major figure in the Jewish community of Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been trying to make aliyah with his wife and son since 2014. He converted to Judaism in 2012 but his application has been rejected because Interior Ministry guidelines for recognizing converts state that the conversion has to take place in an officially recognized Jewish community.
But there is no such Jewish community in Banja Luka and Avraham prepared for becoming a Jew by studying with the country’s non-resident rabbi before appearing before a beit din in Paris that accepted him. The rabbi he had studied with then encouraged him to return to Banja Luka and take a leading role in the revitalization of the Jewish community there. After doing so for more than five years, he felt the time had come to bring his family to Israel. Relentless appeals accompanied by every sort of document requested have been repeatedly rejected.
Do you let Avraham in or not? Is it necessary for Israel to have stringent criteria regarding eligibility for aliyah or would it be better to err on the side of leniency?
NOW THE game begins. Argue for whom the gates of Israel should be open. Declare whether being Jewish is a matter of nationality, race, religion or ethnicity. Reveal which of the above you would be happy to have marrying into your family. Extra points will be given for explaining why it matters, if at all, if it is one’s mother or one’s father who is Jewish. Bonus questions will focus on the degree to which beliefs, practices, DNA or self-identity should be taken into consideration in determining one’s Jewish status.
The winner of the game is the one who can convince the Interior Ministry, the Chief Rabbinate, the Supreme Court and the government of Israel (if one is ever formed) to accept his or her criteria. Good luck. Because until there’s a winner, there are going to be a whole lot of losers.
While Israel continues to absorb, as it should, all those eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return, thousands of others who ought to be allowed in continue to be shut out. Once the decision is made for whom to open the gates, The Jewish Agency will be ready, willing, able and eager to welcome them. Facilitating Aliyah has been its core business for 90 years. It continues to be so today.
In the meantime, for those who have been kept waiting, this is truly no game at all.
The writer serves as deputy chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency, the body charged by the government of Israel with facilitating aliyah, and itself the story of Israel and the Jewish people. ‘Family Matters’ tells that as it is, one chapter at a time. All of the cases referred to in this column, and dozens of others equally problematic, have landed on his desk over the past year.