A Knesset panel recommended on Tuesday that young Jews from abroad who participate in government-sponsored programs be allowed to extend their stay in Israel in order to work and explore the possibility of immigrating – without having to supply proof of their Jewish lineage immediately.
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According to the recommendation, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar will be asked to sign new regulations that permit graduates of Birthright and Masa to stay in Israel for an additional six months after they have completed their programs so that they can explore employment opportunities and the possibility of a permanent move. After the six-month period is up, should they decide to immigrate to Israel, they would then be asked to provide evidence that they fit the definition of Jewish, according to the Law of Return. Until that point, however, no such proof would be required, as it is today.
The recommendation was approved unanimously at a special session held by the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, prompted by a recent report in Haaretz that found that scores of young adults are being asked to prove their Jewish lineage when requesting a change in their visa status in order to stay and work in Israel once they have completed programs like Birthright and Masa. Birthright brings around young Jewish adults to Israel on free 10-day trips, and Masa runs hundreds of government-subsidized study, volunteer and internship programs in the country.
The session was called by MK Nachman Shai (Labor), who heads the 50-member Knesset caucus devoted to strengthening ties with the Jewish world. He also drafted the recommendation.
In mid-2012, the Interior Ministry published new rules designed to expedite the process of awarding and extending work and student visas for Jews. These rules waived any fees required in the past and extended the duration of the permits for much longer periods.
The catch was that to be eligible, applicants had to prove they were Jewish, according to the definition provided in the Law of Return. That is, they had to be the child, grandchild or spouse of a Jew, or a Jew by choice converted outside Israel.
For those born to two Jewish parents who were longtime members of recognized congregations and had a rabbi who could easily vouch for them, providing this evidence was usually a painless process. But for those whose families were never affiliated with a congregation, whose parents or grandparents may have lost their Jewish marriage certificates, who are the products of mixed marriages or have a parent who converted, it could be a daunting task – enough to make them cut short their stay in Israel.
Noa Bauer, the vice president of international marketing at Birthright, noted at the hearing that in North America, half of the candidates targeted by the program are the products of mixed-marriages and about 30 percent of the total number of actual participants are the products of mixed marriages.
Amos Arbel, the director of the population registry at the Ministry of Interior, said at the hearing that the recommendation of the Knesset panel was “reasonable” and “not extreme” and that he, therefore, saw no reason for it to be rejected by his minister.
Opening the session, Shai noted that the root of the problem was that both Birthright and Masa were “overly successful” and, therefore, many participants in these programs did not want to leave Israel once they were done. “It’s a classic case of the Golem rising up over its master,” he said. “But we have to remember that we wanted them here and instead of welcoming them, we’re doing the opposite and turning them away. We’re telling them, ‘no, no, no, you’re not Jewish enough to stay.’ By doing this, we’re losing these young people.”
Arbel initially suggested a different remedy for the problem: He proposed that the directors of Birthright and Masa verify that all those participating in these programs fit the definition of Jewish according to the Law of Return before they were accepted and boarded their flights to Israel. Other participants at the hearing noted that in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, participants are indeed vetted before they are accepted to these programs to make sure they fit this definition. That is not the case, however, in the United States and other Western countries, where it is sufficient for participants to sign a declaration saying they are Jewish to be accepted.
“You all want to fill up buses,” said Arbel, referring to the legendary Birthright buses carrying participants around the country. “Fill them up as much as you want, but that doesn’t mean that these people are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return.”