For Americans Moving to Israel, the Promise of Less Stress Over FBI Background Checks

A proposal pending final approval would significantly reduce the time required for mandatory FBI background checks of prospective immigrants to Israel

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Two American immigrants take a selfie on their arrival in Israel
Two American immigrants take a selfie on their arrival in Israel, 2018.Credit: Shahar Azran
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

A key factor responsible for the slowdown in immigration from the United States to Israel in recent months could be eliminated soon, a senior Jewish Agency official promised on Monday.

Shay Felber, head of the immigration department at the Jewish Agency, said that under a proposal that is pending final approval, the amount of time required for mandatory FBI background checks of prospective immigrants to Israel would be significantly reduced.

According to regulations that recently took effect, every adult applying to immigrate to Israel from the United States is required to undergo an FBI background check, and an apostille –international notary certification – must be attached to the document that confirms that the applicant has no criminal record. The apostille can only be obtained at the U.S. State Department in Washington, and the process can often take many weeks.

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Felber told the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs that Israel had in recent weeks submitted a proposal to the FBI that would dramatically speed up the process. Under this proposal, the apostilled FBI documents would be sent directly to the Jewish Agency rather than back to the applicant, as is currently the case. This would save the applicant the need to deliver the document personally to an Israeli consulate in the United States, from where it is forwarded to the Jewish Agency.

“If they approve this, we will be very happy,” Felber said. “It will make things much easier for the applicants.”

He said it could save applicants on average a month and a half of waiting for the FBI documents. The proposal was submitted for approval by the FBI through the State Department.

Felber said the apostille was required because it was easy to forge the FBI clearance document.

All documents required for aliyah, such as birth and marriage certificates, as well as proof of one’s Jewish background, must be apostilled. But except for the case of FBI background checks, Felber said, the process is usually very quick. Obtaining apostilles for criminal background checks in countries other than the United States was also relatively simple, he added.

For the past 10 years, criminal background checks had been required of all individuals immigrating to Israel, except those coming from North America. Three months ago, however, the Interior Ministry announced that it was suspending the long-standing agreement that had allowed for the United States to be exempt.

Many Americans waiting to make aliyah charge that the new requirement has created a major bottleneck for them. To be sure, it is not the only obstacle slowing aliyah in recent months. Since the outbreak of the global pandemic, flights to Israel have been few and far between. In addition, for a period of several months, the Interior Ministry had stopped issuing new aliyah visas, which meant that only applicants who had managed to obtain the special permits before the pandemic could board flights to Israel.

Until the coronavirus outbreak, all aliyah applicants were required to present themselves at an Israeli consulate for a personal interview. For a period of several weeks, until the Jewish Agency found a way to conduct the interviews by videoconference, they were all postponed, causing further delays.

Felber told the Knesset committee that 2,378 aliyah files were opened in the United States in July – compared with 557 in July of last year. He said the applicants spanned the religious spectrum and included “Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jews.”

File photo of North American immigrants arriving in Israel at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Credit: Nefesh B'Nefesh

Several participants at the session noted that among American Jews, those facing the greatest difficulties making aliyah have been applicants who themselves or whose parents were born in the former Soviet Union. Such individuals were required to provide much more documentation of their Jewish roots and needed to receive final approval not from the Jewish Agency but from Nativ, an organization that handles aliyah from former Soviet bloc countries. It is a far more cumbersome process.

Easing the process 

Felber revealed at the session that Nativ was considering sending an envoy to the United States to assist this particular group of people. Anywhere from 750,000 to 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union are estimated to live in the United States. Roughly 250 to 300 of them immigrate to Israel every year.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Knesset committee, David Bitan, who is a member of Likud, accused the government of deliberately keeping the number of immigrants down. “It’s because the treasury wants to save money,” he alleged. “It’s a government conspiracy, and that’s what explains all the red tape.”

The Jewish Agency and the Aliyah and Integration Ministry have been predicting a major immigration wave once the coronavirus crisis has passed. In an interview in Haaretz two weeks ago, however, Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, Israel’s leading demographer, challenged such predictions, noting that high unemployment rates in Israel were sure to serve as a deterrent to aliyah. If anything, he said, the country should prepare itself for a major exodus of young and educated Israelis.

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