Knesset to Investigate: Why Is Israel So Cold to Young Jews?

Being the product of a mixed marriage is just one problem for many young people trying to extend an Israeli visa.

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A Knesset panel will be devoting a special session Tuesday to the plight of young Jews from abroad who are finding their Jewish credentials called into question when they request permission to extend their stay in Israel after participating in government- and Jewish Agency-subsidized programs.

MK Nachman Shai (Labor) called for the hearing of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee following a recent report in Haaretz, which found that scores of young adults are being asked to prove their religious lineage when they request a change in their visa status.

Many of them are graduates of programs like Birthright, which brings young Jewish adults to Israel on free 10-day trips, and Masa, which runs hundreds of subsidized study, volunteering and internship programs in the country.

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 have a rabbi who can easily vouch for them, providing this evidence is 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 can be a daunting task – enough to make them cut short their stay in Israel.

“Israel speaks from both sides of the mouth when it addresses the young generation of Diaspora Jews,” said Shai, who heads the 50-member Knesset caucus devoted to strengthening ties with the Jewish world.

“On the one hand, it encourages and even finances different experiential programs in order to strengthen their ties to Israel. On the other, when they want to stay here and tie their destiny to Israel’s, it places infinite obstacles in their path, investigating their Jewishness, the Jewishness of their parents and eventually pushing them out of here. How typical, and how sad.”

Birthright participants landing in Israel. The visa can be a bigger problem. Credit: Kobi Wolf - Gini