David Ben Moshe: A Hunger Strike for Israeli citizenship

I love Israel and will always defend it, but the treatment that I have received since applying for citizenship, my automatic right as a Jew, is an embarrassment.

 David Ben Moshe (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
David Ben Moshe
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In response to the continued discrimination I have suffered at the hands of the government of Israel, I started a hunger strike yesterday. And I intend to protest at the front door of the Ministry of the Interior on Queen Shlomzion Street. The protest will not end until I receive my Oleh (new immigrant) certificate.

I love Israel and will always defend it, but the treatment that I have received since applying for citizenship, my automatic right as a Jew, is an embarrassment to any country that claims to have a written law to protect people from the arbitrary abuse of governmental power.

Since submitting my application in May of 2018, I have been detained, interrogated, threatened with deportation, and repeatedly misled by government officials. The abuse did not stop with me but has extended to my wife and children.

The Law Of Return does state that a Jew can be denied citizenship if they are “a person with a criminal past, likely to endanger public welfare” but I have proven that I am not likely to endanger public welfare. However, according to Jewish Community Watch, this statute has not stopped dozens of Jewish pedophiles who are United States citizens from finding a haven within the borders of Israel to avoid punishment for their crimes.

This well-known problem is also taken advantage of by fugitives from other countries. For example, Malka Leifer fled Australia directly to Israel when faced with 74 charges of child sex offense. Once caught by Israeli authorities, she was not extradited but instead allowed to continue living a normal life with periodic psychiatric reviews. Only after private investigators filmed hundreds of hours of footage of her living a normal life in Israel did the Israeli justice system reopen the case and find her fit to stand trial and returned her to Australia – six years after her arrest.

Malka Leifer (credit: MAARIV/AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)Malka Leifer (credit: MAARIV/AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The former Deputy Minister of Health allegedly pressured doctors to falsify psychiatric evaluations that deemed Leifer unfit to stand trial, preventing her extradition. He has claimed that everything he did was legal, and he was acting “for the good of the public.”

However, as a Black convert to Judaism with a criminal record, the government found it harder to allow me to continue my law-abiding Jewish life in Israel than to assist Malka Leifer in her evasion of justice. I am not on the run from the law; I have fully paid my debt to society and have repeatedly proven that I changed my ways and have given so much back to the communities I am a part of. The criminal in my current case is the Interior Ministry, which has repeatedly broken the law to prevent me from becoming a citizen.

 

I SUBMITTED my application on May 9, 2018. The law required a timely response, but I had to wait more than seven months until January 20, 2019, for my first answer. The reason given for the delay was an investigation into my criminal record.

During the investigation, I was interviewed multiple times where I was asked questions such as:

“How could you be a convert, you don’t look like a convert?”

“With your criminal record, how could your wife’s parents be happy with you?

“You are Orthodox with a smartphone? How can that be?”

Following this investigation, the ministry denied me citizenship because my conversion was “unacceptable” without elaborating about what was “unacceptable” about it. This statement was absurd; my conversion not only met the standards for citizenship but had already been accepted by the state’s religious authorities for marriage under Jewish law — a much stricter standard.

I submitted an appeal within the legally required timeframe of 21 days, but once again, I found that the Interior Ministry did not feel the need to follow the timeframe that the law required of them.

The law states that I should have received a written response within 45 days, but it took almost two years. Additionally, both denials were legally inadequate since the law requires that they inform me as to why my conversion was unacceptable.

 

DURING THAT waiting period, we started doing everything imaginable to get a work visa. My wife was pregnant with our first child, so in addition to waiting for a response to the appeal, we applied for a work visa based on our marriage.

The ministry denied this request, but at least this time, we were given a clear reason, albeit a ridiculous one. The State of Israel could not accept any Israeli marriages for granting status in the country of Israel; it only accepts civil marriages performed in other countries. This meant that since my wife was already a citizen, she was recognized as married, but I could not register as being married to her.

The clerk was kind enough to inform us that this wasn’t a problem at all. The Israeli marriage was proof I was Jewish and, therefore, just needed to make aliyah (immigrate) – in his own words, “a quick and easy process.”

Because I had written proof that the problem was my conversion and that my criminal record was not mentioned, the Jewish Agency agreed to advocate on my behalf. They negotiated an arrangement. The Interior Ministry would provide me with a work visa, and I would give the ministry a written statement saying I understood that they did not recognize me as being married.

With my wife due to give birth any day, we didn’t have much choice. I went into the ministry's office to write that statement on the day after our daughter was born. I had to leave my wife Tamar and our newborn baby girl in the hospital to admit I wasn’t considered married by the state authorities.

 

WHILE I was waiting at the Interior Ministry to give this statement, my wife called. She was crying — an administrator had told her that she would not be allowed to leave the hospital until we paid a 5,000 shekel bill.

Because she was married to a foreign national, Bituach Leumi, the national insurance in Israel, didn’t automatically cover the cost of the birth, as it does for all other citizens. This left us with the bill in case it was not covered.

After a meeting with the financial administrator, she agreed to let us leave if we wrote the hospital a security check for 5,000 shekels. If Tamar went to Bituach Leumi and brought a certificate from them to the hospital stating she would be covered, they would return our check instead of cashing it.

So instead of resting in bed with our daughter, Tamar spent her first day out of the hospital standing in line and riding buses with our three-day-old daughter to avoid an unexpected hospital bill.

And our newborn daughter, so young that we hadn’t even named her yet, was introduced to the bureaucratic labyrinth of the State of Israel – her birthright for being unfortunate enough to have me as her father.

I spent the day in tears, having realized I selfishly turned Tamar into a second-class citizen and brought a child into this world who immediately had the sins of her father laid upon her.

 

WE CONTINUED to try to get a response and work with the Jewish Agency. But then the agency hit an obstacle. The Interior Ministry told them, off the record, that my conversion was acceptable; the problem was my criminal record. When the agency asked the ministry why they had written me an official denial stating the opposite, it stated that it couldn’t respond to the Jewish Agency because my file was confidential. Because of this the ministry could only discuss that information directly with me.

This statement might have been reasonable, except that the Interior Ministry also stated they were unwilling to contact me regarding my file. This contradiction was acceptable enough for the Jewish Agency, which informed me they would not continue to advocate on my behalf.

After this setback, we opened a file with the Ombudsman in an attempt to get the ministry to respond to my appeal. But the request from the Ombudsman was ignored as well. When we followed up with the Ombudsman, they told us that they didn’t know what to do in this situation — by law the Interior Ministry has to answer them. But since it didn’t, we should update the Ombudsman office if we heard anything.

We were both US citizens, so we decided to fly abroad to get a civil marriage that Israel would recognize. This step was a risk because during my original waiting period I was detained, interrogated and threatened with deportation when returning from a trip to take a workshop.

Our trip was successful, we were married a second time and we successfully got back into the country, but I was still unable to register as being married to my wife. The reason:

She was already married — to me.

 

UNTIL THIS point, the appalling treatment I had received from the Interior Ministry was not newsworthy. The office is so broken and inefficient that everyone seems to have a horror story involving their bureaucracy.

But being unable to marry my wife because she was married to me was enough to get me on the cover of a national newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, and an evening news segment on KAN, the state news broadcaster of Israel.

The ministry suddenly decided that my conversion was acceptable in response to this negative coverage. This change meant that I didn’t need my wife for status in the country, which fixed the marriage problem, and meant that I was officially eligible for citizenship under the Right of Return.

But I was refused again because the ministry needed to deal with my criminal record. The three and a half years I had already been in the country, without incident, and my character references were not enough proof that I likely did not endanger public welfare.

These character references included multiple well-known rabbis and congregations in both the United States and Israel, current and former members of the Israeli Knesset, a retired US Air Force colonel, an assistant attorney-general of the State of Maryland, and an active member of the Baltimore Police Department.

 

THE MINISTRY now wanted a trial period: a completely open-ended period allowing them to delay the decision to grant me citizenship indefinitely. I was informed that I would need to renew my visa every year.

The first year of this period has passed, making it four and a half years since I arrived in Israel. I went to my yearly appointment with high hopes for citizenship, but instead, I was told to fill out more forms and that the ministry offered to renew my visa.

The law is clear. Either I am “likely to endanger public welfare” and should not be allowed in the country at all, or I am not likely to endanger public welfare and am entitled to automatic citizenship.

And even if I were likely to endanger public welfare, I would still have the right to a just process and humane treatment.

I have been extraordinarily patient in the face of this ongoing abuse. But now I am demanding my teudat oleh (citizenship document) immediately. I am officially on a hunger strike and on my way to the Interior Ministry where I intend to stay until my request is granted and I have a teudat oleh in my hand.

If I am arrested and put in prison, I will continue my hunger strike and return to the ministry the moment I am released.

It is heartbreaking that the bureaucracy in Israel has gotten so bad that one must go on a hunger strike or light themselves on fire to be heard. But this is the current state of our governmental system.