Two and a half months ago, Tatiana Leibowitz, a 38-year old citizen of Moldova living in Israel, was arrested as an illegal resident. She sat in jail, in Hadera, for two months. Her 61-year old mother, Victoria Gorzhi, an Israeli citizen, identified as a Jew in her identity card, brought enough portions of gefilte fish to be able to feed all of her daughter's roommates, but she was never allowed to bring it into the jail. Leibowitz's Colombian and Ukrainian fellow inmates never had the opportunity to taste the quintessentially Jewish dish.
Both Leibowitz's mother and sister immigrated, and became Israeli citizens 15 years ago. But over a period of 10 years, Leibowitz, who carries many documents that prove that she is Jewish, failed to receive citizenship. It's not that the Interior Ministry turned down Leibowitz's request for citizenship, at least until now. The ministry simply failed to respond, and Leibowitz was left with no residence status or rights in Israel. "If I am a Jew, why isn't my daughter?" asks Victoria Gorzhi, adding that the Interior Ministry "actually told me that she is not my daughter."
In recent legal proceedings pertaining to the case, it became clear that, 15 years after the entire family immigrated to Israel, the Interior Ministry believes that documents the family provided as proof of their Jewishness are forged. Gorzhi says that she was born in the year that World War II ended. During the war, her mother hid near Crimea, and obtained forged documents that identified her as a Tatar rather than a Jew. Thus, the grandmother hid during the Holocaust and held forged documents to conceal the fact that she was a Jew, and now the Interior Ministry claims that her daughter and granddaughter hold forged documents to prove that they are Jews. Gorzhi has a 1981 document from a previous employer who listed her as a Jew. During that period, her Jewish identification was considered only a disadvantage in the former Soviet Union.
Last Yom Kippur, according to Leibowitz, she and another inmate were the only women in the jail who fasted. "On the holidays, in Moldova, we went to synagogue. We got matza there. I made matza myself at home in a frying pan - flour, water, that's it. My daughter actually loved the matza that I made." But her daughter, who attended school in Israel, grew tired of the lack of documentation or of options for the future. She moved back to the Caucasus to live with another grandmother, who is, "incidentally," also Jewish.
In 1991, Leibowitz's sister, Olga Feinborn, immigrated to Israel with her husband and young daughter. All three of them were granted citizenship, with no problems. A year later, she became very ill, and her mother, Victoria Gorzhi, came here to care for her. At the end of 1996, Leibowitz herself came to Israel to visit. An appeal presented on her behalf by attorney Orna Shapiro states, "She found her family in desperate straits. Olga was bedridden. Her mother cared for her 24 hours a day."
Leibowitz decided to stay in Israel and filed a request for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. She brought her daughter, who is now 19, with her. "In Moldova," she says, "I had an apartment and two stores." She sold everything to pay for the stay in Israel. She says that her ex-husband, who was also a Jew, refuses to communicate with her.
While they were still in Moldova, the couple relied on their Jewish identity to apply to emigrate to Germany. The husband has been there for eight years. "As far as the Germans are concerned, I am Jewish, but in Israel, I am not," Leibowitz says. In 2000 the couple divorced, and in 2001 she married an Israeli.
During the 10 years since she filed a request for citizenship, Leibowitz and her mother have visited the Interior Ministry on dozens of occasions. "I never received an answer as to why they wouldn't give it to me," she says. "They never told me to leave the country. They either said, 'We're working on it,' or that the file was lost." During that entire period, she was not entitled to national insurance benefits, health services from government-sponsored HMOs, nor could she legally work.
Any claim that denies that Leibowitz is Jewish, in effect, denies that her mother and sister are Jewish. But no action was taken against them during the last 10 years. It was only on August 20 of this year that the Interior Ministry contacted her mother and requested that she come in to their offices, "to choose a nationality other than 'Jewish.'" The mother appeared with attorney Shapiro and refused. Russian immigration activist Alex Tentzer says, "As far as the Interior Ministry is concerned, whenever you have new documents, you are considered a cheat." The family says that they obtained new documents in 1988, after their house burned down. Two days after the mother's refusal, her daughter was detained by Immigration Police, because she was an "illegal" resident, and she was jailed for two months.
On October 23, Tel Aviv District Court Judge Nissim Yeshaya ordered Leibowitz released on relatively meager bail of NIS 5,000. Yeshaya wrote: "The claim that she is Jewish was, at least, not contradicted," and added that the Ministry's representative "did not know how to respond to [the claim]." Leibowitz petitioned the High Court, one month ago, asking it to require the Interior Ministry to grant her citizenship. "The whole family was destroyed and lives in fear," says attorney Shapiro. "It really resembles Kafka's stories."
'Suspicion of fraud often arises after years'
Population Administration Spokeswoman Sabine Haddad responds that in a hearing pertaining to Leibowitz's case, as early as 1997, "She was told that the documents that she held were forged." The administration maintains that this statement represented an oral response to Leibowitz's request. Haddad says that after professional analysts became convinced that the family's documents were forged, it became necessary to summon the family, "to come to the office to change their nationality and religion," and this was not merely a tactic used to apply pressure. "It is true that much time had passed since the day that the mother and sister immigrated to Israel, but suspicion of forgery and fraud often arises after years. This is a criminal act that must be addressed."
Haddad added that Leibowitz has resided illegally in Israel during the past 10 years. "In 1988, she forged an identity card, and in 2001, she engaged in a fictitious marriage." According to Haddad, in 1988, Leibowitz filed for a passport, while masquerading as her sister. A complaint was lodged with the police. Haddad's response relies, to a great extent, on the Hebrew transcript of the hearing conducted in Leibowitz's case. Leibowitz claimed in the appeal that she never said words attributed to her, does not read Hebrew, and has no understanding of the basis of these statements.
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