For Converts Seeking Israeli Citizenship, New Policy Promises Less Red Tape

Applicants will from now on be allowed to reside in Israel under temporary visas and not be forced to spend nine months in their communities abroad.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A candidate for conversion sits before a special conversion court in Jerusalem.
A candidate for conversion sits before a special conversion court in Jerusalem.Credit: Haaretz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Jews who have undergone conversions abroad and wish to immigrate to Israel will have an easier time obtaining citizenship, under brand new procedures adopted by the Interior Ministry.

A document specifying the new procedures, obtained by Haaretz, was submitted to the Supreme Court last week. It is the first time the Interior Ministry has delineated in writing its criteria for approving conversions performed abroad for the purpose of citizenship applications. Under the Law of Return, Jews who are recognized as such by the Interior Ministry are eligible for automatic citizenship in Israel as well as a package of financial benefits.

The Supreme Court had demanded that the Interior Ministry specify its criteria in writing following several petitions filed last year by the Israel Religious Action Center on behalf of converts whose applications for citizenship had been rejected by the Interior Ministry.

According to sources at IRAC, the new procedures require the Interior Ministry to rule on citizenship requests submitted by converts within a set amount of time – in cases where all the necessary documentation is provided, within 45 days, and where some documentation is not available or where questions arise about the motives for conversion, within 3-4 months. Until now, it was typical for rulings on these requests to be delayed for many months and even years.

Under the Interior Ministry procedures that had been in force until now but were never committed to writing, converts were required to be active members of their respective Jewish communities abroad for at least nine months before they could move to Israel. Under the new procedures, converts will no longer need to spend the entire nine-month period abroad but can join Jewish congregations in Israel and receive temporary resident visas for the duration of the nine-month period and until their citizenship applications are approved.

Under the new procedures, converts who apply for citizenship in Israel are required to have participated in nine-month-long conversion courses (or no less than 300 hours in classes), during which time they were active members of “recognized” Jewish communities. A “recognized” Jewish community is defined for this purpose as an established community affiliated with one of the recognized Jewish movements (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, etc.), or alternatively, one recognized as such by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

In recent years, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel has refused to recognize conversions performed by certain Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States. Under these new criteria, the Jewish Agency can overrule the Chief Rabbinate when such discrepancies arise.

In special cases, allowances will be made for expedited conversion courses, according to the new procedures, so long as the conversion courts or the rabbis overseeing the conversions can provide explanations that justify cutting the time short (such as previous engagement with the Jewish community or previous knowledge of Judaism).

Under the new procedures, converts with documentation confirming that they have met all the criteria should have their citizenship applications approved within 45 days.

In the document submitted to the Supreme Court, the Interior Ministry lists a variety of circumstances where further investigation is required to rule out fictitious conversions undertaken solely for the purpose of obtaining Israeli citizenship. These include the following:

1. The applicant has a previous history of residing in the country without a valid visa.
2. A previous application submitted by the applicant was rejected.
3. The applicant has other family members who have not converted but wish to immigrate to Israel with him or her.
4. The applicant began conversion classes while residing in Israel without a valid visa.

In such and other cases where suspicions arise that the applicant may be trying to exploit the system, the new procedures require that a date be set for a hearing within 45 days and that final ruling on the matter be handed down by the Ministry of Interior within 60 days of the hearing.

Responding to the new procedures, Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, an organization that helps individuals navigate Israel's religious bureaucracy, said: “After 2005, we have been in Supreme Court four times on this issue, and it’s gratifying to see that the ministry is finally recognizing the legitimate aspirations of converts to make aliyah. What still needs to be done is to ensure that policies are implemented by local clerks and that unnecessary redtape procedures converts are put through will no longer take effect.”

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