Why does Israel discriminate against elderly olim? - opinion

It hurts me that the country I love can treat elderly immigrants in this manner. Israel was established as a haven for all Jews, irrespective of race, country of origin, or age.

 The writer poses with her husband and children. ‘An agent acknowledged that the roadblocks were intentional, to keep the elderly from making Israel their home, and presumably becoming a drain on resources,’ she says. (photo credit: DEBBIE ZIMELMAN)
The writer poses with her husband and children. ‘An agent acknowledged that the roadblocks were intentional, to keep the elderly from making Israel their home, and presumably becoming a drain on resources,’ she says.
(photo credit: DEBBIE ZIMELMAN)

Fourteen years ago, I arrived in Israel with my young family, driven by the values and desires that motivate most olim – a love for my country, and a desire to raise my children in the Jewish homeland. Since then, three of my sisters have made aliyah, have married and built a life here. Our absorption was smooth and I was delighted by the support we all received from Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Jewish Agency and Israeli citizens.

Last year, my parents announced their decision to make aliyah. Fifty years ago, they had fled to the US under the shadow of the Iron Curtain and had for years resisted becoming immigrants a second time, even though the majority of their children now lived in Israel. But after my father’s retirement from his government job, they realized it was time to reunite with their daughters and many grandchildren.

They collected all the requested documents and sent them to the Jewish Agency – thus beginning a miserable process rife with obstacles, endless bureaucracy and a complete lack of reason or transparency.

An Israeli unpleasant response

It quickly became clear that, unlike my sisters’ experience and mine, theirs would not be a smooth road. They had to prove their “Jewishness” over and over. It didn’t seem to matter that their children had made aliyah and married in Israel under the rabbinate. That was not enough. 

They submitted letters from three rabbis and the Baltimore beit din. They sold their home in the US and recently flew to Israel, hoping to complete the process here.

 NEW IMMIGRANTS from North America receive a shofar’s welcome upon arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport on a special ‘aliyah flight’ on behalf of Nefesh B’Nefesh.  (credit: FLASH90) NEW IMMIGRANTS from North America receive a shofar’s welcome upon arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport on a special ‘aliyah flight’ on behalf of Nefesh B’Nefesh. (credit: FLASH90)

They were greeted with even more obstinacy from the Interior Ministry. My mother was told that even though the Jewish Agency had finally approved her “Jewishness,” she would have to completely restart the process again here in Israel, through Nativ.

My father’s application is completely stalled because they are insisting on an apostille birth certificate from Georgia (former USSR) – a document that my father simply cannot obtain. (He has tried repeatedly).

The agents they have spoken to have ranged from indifferent to flat-out rude and insulting. One accused my father of making aliyah “for the health benefits.” (My dad had excellent health benefits in the US.) Another agent acknowledged that the roadblocks my parents were encountering were intentional, designed to keep the elderly from making Israel their home (and presumably becoming a drain on national resources.)

My sisters and I have attempted to help from within Israel. I have written to Yad L’Olim, a wonderful organization that has assisted immigrants with similar issues. They have kindly offered their help, but I understand their organization is currently swamped with pleas like mine from multiple applicants who have been blocked by unreasonable demands.

My parents are now in an awful limbo, knowing that their tourist visa expires soon, and with nowhere to go when it does. They are in their seventies, and have already waited countless hours and made multiple exhausting trips to the Interior Ministry, with no end in sight.

Even if their situation does finally get resolved, it hurts me that the country I love, whom I extol to my American friends, can treat elderly immigrants in this manner. Israel was established as a haven for all Jews, irrespective of race, country of origin, or age. I want my parents to understand that the discrimination they have experienced does not represent who we are. But unfortunately, I no longer know what to say to them.

The writer is a pediatrician and an author. Her latest novel, The Last Words We Said (Simon & Schuster 2021), was recently awarded the Sydney Taylor honor award. She can be reached at [email protected]