Immigration officials are criticizing a proposed law that would allow Jews to live in Israel indefinitely without ever having to formally immigrate.
This provision would grant Jewish non-citizens many of the benefits of living in Israel without any of the burdens that taxpaying citizens carry, critics of the proposal argue. The bill's proponents, however, say that Jews who are eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return should have access to benefits that are not offered to non-Jewish tourists. They also claim that such a measure would increase the rate of Jews from abroad seeking citizenship in Israel, or making aliyah.
The Amendment to the Entry into Israel Bill, authored by MK Avraham Michaeli (Shas), passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset two weeks ago.
"The purpose of the bill is "to encourage those entitled to [the Law of] Return to come to Israel and to stay here," the bill's explanatory note says.
"Today, a tourist who is eligible to [immigrate under the Law of] Return has the same rights as a non-Jewish tourist who is not eligible for the Law of Return," Michaeli told Anglo File this week.
"That doesn't make sense," he charged.
The bill was discussed Tuesday in the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee but did not pass its first reading after professionals from several ministries expressed reservations. Professionals from the interior, justice, finance and immigrant absorption ministries all weighed in on the proposal.
Ultimately, Michaeli instructed the ministries to decide what "what makes sense from a professional point of view" and report back to him with proposed changes. He said he will consider those changes and then determine whether to amend the bill or continue to push it as is.
The session was adjourned for two weeks.
In its present form, the bill would allow every individual entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return - that is, Jews and their relatives - to live in Israel for as long they please. They would be able to renew their tourist visas and temporary residencies every two or five years, respectively, without ever having to formally apply for Israeli citizenship.
Currently, the Entry into Israel Law allows tourists to stay in the country for three months, with the option to extend their stay for two years. Additional five-year extensions are granted for study or temporary residency. Presently, temporary residents must renew their visas every two years.
"If a Jewish tourist wants to come to Israel and stay here for longer, for whatever reason ... I want to extend his possibilities to stay in the country," Michaeli told Anglo File. "He shouldn't have go through bureaucracy every so often. If somebody is Jewish they can immigrate at any time, so why make people's lives more difficult?"
Michaeli said he also believes the bill would boost the number of Westerners who reside in Israel, and would eventually lead to an increase in the rate of those making aliyah.
"The people on Birthright are only here for a short period of time and are already falling in love with Israel," he said, referring to a program that offers Diaspora Jews free 10-day tours of Israel. "If you give them more time here and not restrict them, this will be the case even more."
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky also supports Michaeli's bill on the basis that it would increase the rate of aliyah. In fact, Sharansky had encouraged Interior Minister Eli Yishai for over a year to push for such a law.
"Israel has to give all the opportunities to the Jews of the world to feel that it's their home, that they're part of the family, even before they make the decision to make aliyah," Sharansky told Anglo File this week. "The more Jews spend time in Israel, the stronger is their Jewish identity and there's also a bigger chance that they will make aliyah. If you want more aliyah, there should be more Jews."
Not everyone is convinced.
While the bill has the support of Yishai (Shas ) and Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beiteinu ), a spokesperson for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry said the ministry has not yet finalized its official stance regarding the bill. In fact, some ministry officials told Anglo File that they oppose the proposal because it would grant rights to Jews from abroad without asking anything in return. They also say it would actually discourage Jews from making aliyah by offering them a way to receive many of the benefits of citizenship without having to do any mandatory army service in return.
Many immigration professionals agree.
"Why do we need an extension of the law to allow one to reside in Israel and receive the benefits of Israeli residency without any commitment to responsibilities of citizenship or permanent residency?" asked Akiva Werber, a senior aliyah profesional and former emissary for the Jewish Agency. "An individual can certainly decide after 27 months if they want a temporary residency. They should be able to decide after five years if they want to use the Law of Return to share our mutual fate as citizens or not."
Josie Arbel, the director of absorption services at the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, expressed similar concerns. "The sense that you can take advantage of the benefits of residency and leave whenever you want with no consequences could be problematic," she said.