The Israel Religious Action Center has petitioned the High Court of Justice to grant citizenship to a 62-year-old African-American convert to Judaism who is being threatened with deportation by the Interior Ministry.
The petition was submitted this week after immigration police arrested the Haifa resident upon discovering that he had overstayed his tourist visa, and had him incarcerated for a week at the Givon detention center in Ramle.
They initially planned to deport him on the spot, but were prevented from doing so when a temporary injunction order was issued by the High Court of Justice at the request of the religious action center. The injunction was issued just as he was about to be put on a plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport and sent back to the United States.
Kirk Maxfield, who was released Thursday, underwent a Reform conversion in 1993 in his hometown of Gary, Indiana, and soon after joined the local Conservative synagogue. In 2011, he came to Israel and decided to apply for status as a new immigrant under the Law of Return.
The Interior Ministry opened a file with his application and requested that he submit a list of documents, among them his conversion certificate, to verify information he had provided about his background. He had been in the process of transferring these documents when he was arrested.
According to Nicole Maor, the action center's legal director, foreigners applying for citizenship under the Law of Return are generally allowed to stay in Israel once the Ministry of Interior has opened a file for them and until a final decision on their status has been taken. In such cases, even when residents overstay their temporary visas, she said, they are not penalized. Maor added that to the best of her knowledge, Jews visiting Israel from abroad who are not converts, but who happen to overstay their tourist visas, have never been arrested or threatened with deportation.
In Haifa, where he lived for the past seven months, Maxfield was an active member of Kehillat Moriah, the oldest Conservative congregation in Israel. "He has been coming to services regularly on Shabbat and attending our Hebrew-language classes on Wednesdays," said the congregational rabbi, Dov Haiyun. "I had mistakenly been under the impression that he already obtained new immigrant status."
Maxfield said he had decided to move to Israel, among other reasons, because he had been ostracized by his family and community back in the United States for converting to Judaism. "I came here to be with my people, and I ended up getting the same treatment here as I did in America," he said. "I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't."
In response, the Interior Ministry said that Maxfield applied for new immigrant status in April 2012 but has still not submitted all the documents that were requested of him. "Mr. Maxfield was arrested because he was here for an extended period without permission, in violation of Israeli law," said spokeswoman Sabine Haddad.
In recent years, African-American converts have come under intense scrutiny by Interior Ministry official. According to sources who have been present at meetings held between the two sides, the converts are frequently questioned by ministry officials about their possible connections to the Hebrew Israelites, a community of African-Americans in Dimona, most of them originally from Chicago, who maintain they are descendants of the Tribe of Judah but are not recognized as Jews by the state. Maxfield told Haaretz he had absolutely no connection to the community, commonly known as the Black Hebrews.
The Interior Ministry did not respond to a question regarding allegations that it tended to discriminate against non-whites when handling citizenship requests from converts.
An African-American woman who converted to Judaism in Atlanta, Georgia, and has been living in Jerusalem for the past seven years, where she is active in the Conservative movement, told Haaretz that she has been waiting since she arrived to have her application for citizenship approved under the Law of Return. "Every time it seems like we've accomplished something, it's back to square one," said the woman, who asked that she not be identified for fear that it would harm her case. "At one point they even told me that they had lost my file." She also asserted that she had no connection to the Hebrew Israelites.
After her request for citizenship was rejected by the Ministry of Interior in 2011, the religious action center submitted a petition on her behalf, as a result of which she was recently granted temporary residency for a year.
A group of African-American families, who all converted in the United States and have been living in Ashkelon for the past couple of years, have in recent months been subjected to intense questioning by Interior Ministry officials, who have delayed approval of their citizenship requests as well, according to Maor.
She noted that those coming under the scrutiny of the Interior Ministry are generally African-American converts who come to Israel as tourists and request new immigrant status once they are in the country, as well as those who have no previous connection to Judaism, such as a Jewish spouse. "There is a fear that they may be trying to use their conversion as a way to get status in Israel in order to join the Black Hebrews in Dimona," she said. "Often their level of knowledge about Judaism gives rise to doubts."
Maor said that the main difficulty these African-American converts confront is that while their personal information is being verified by the Interior Ministry, a process that can often take months and years, they are stripped of all rights.
"Israel, as the homeland for the Jewish people, should welcome all Jews - whether by birth or by choice," she said. "A Jew by choice who presents a conversion certificate performed by a recognized rabbi within the framework of a recognized Jewish congregation overseas, and who has no criminal background, should be granted a visa which allows him to live in Israel with dignity, until all these processes are complete."
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