European Dreaming

There's been a dramatic rise over the past year in the number of Ashkenazi families who have gone to East and Central European embassies to seek passports and citizenship, based on their family history.

This grass roots movement has no name, no leaders and no platform. It is published on the grapevine, because of media apathy. Nonetheless, it is sweeping up a lot families. There's been a dramatic rise over the past year in the number of Ashkenazi families who have gone to East and Central European embassies to seek passports and citizenship, based on their family history.

Grandparents' names are being signed to affidavits, and yellowing papers are being dug up. Lawyers expert in the relevant bureaucracies are being sought to help with the paperwork. In some households, the children are pressing to "get a passport" but the parents are standing firm, with memories of the Holocaust and persecution.

Every country has a different procedure to apply for and get citizenship, but the trend is clear. Until the intifada, the German embassy dealt with about 1,300 citizenship applications from Israelis a year. In 2002 that jumped to 2,366, and in the first half of 2003 there were 1,622 requests. The Czech embassy dealt with some 500 requests this year. The Austrians are reporting 173 approvals for citizenship last year and 331 since the start of this year. Slovakia granted 200 passports to Israelis in 2002 and this year that number will double. The Hungarian embassy says there were "a few hundred" applicants, and the Polish embassy speaks of "an enormous increase" in requests from Israelis, to as many as a few thousand.

The rush for a foreign passport is understandable, given anxieties about security and the economy. Apparently, the government's promises for peace, security, and prosperity are not very convincing. The phenomenon intensified because of the expansion of the European Union eastward, which made the former Communist states attractive. The inhibitions about renewing contact with the old world where Jews were persecuted and murdered are fading. It's always possible to excuse a foreign passport with "the kids will be able to go to school in Europe," instead of mentioning a haven for a rainy day.

Since 9/11 the gaps have widened between the status of Americans and Europeans and "the rest of the world." The questions at airports are difficult, the lines for foreigners are humiliating, and the immigration officials are sour. Israel's claim to be a Western country is not exactly passing muster. It's nicer to go through the fast line with a foreign passport.

The government is not intervening in the Israeli requests for second citizenships and is not collecting data about it. The Foreign Ministry says that it is a private matter of each citizen with respect to the foreign country and it is not coming up in bilateral diplomatic contacts. This week, the deputy foreign minister of Poland and the prime minister of Slovakia visited Israel and the issue of their multiplying subjects in Israel did not come up.

The desire to join the EU does not necessarily mean a wave of emigration but the phenomenon could have interesting repercussions. For example, there could be a deepening of the gap between the European Israelis who have the right to settle overseas and those Israelis who were born in Arab countries and find it difficult to get visas now to the U.S.

If the trend continues, there could be intervention by foreign countries to "protect their citizens" in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Pioneering that approach is Russian President Vladimir Putin who explained to the prime minister last week that he wants to see the conflict resolved because he is worried abut the Russian diaspora in Israel. He didn't mention Palestinian rights. There's a precedent from the past: The Jewish yishuv during the Ottoman era developed under consular protection for individuals from the respective countries represented in Jaffa and Jerusalem. It is difficult to believe that kind of protection will return but the proliferation of Israelis with dual citizenship could further complicate Israel's already sensitive relations with Europe.