Israel's High Court Recognizes Seven Peruvians as Jewish Under Law of Return

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Peruvian Jews celebrating the Sabbath at a synagogue in Iquitos, Peru, in June 2009Credit: NYTimes

A panel of three justices has ruled that seven great-grandchildren of a Moroccan Jewish man who emigrated to Peru are indeed Jewish and eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. The seven petitioned the High Court of Justice three years ago, after the Interior Ministry reversed its own previous decision recognizing their great-grandmother, the Moroccan Jew’s wife, as Jewish. Some of the couple’s great-grandchildren immigrated to Israel in 2009, under the Law of Return, after the Interior Ministry recognized them as Jews.

When remaining family members sought to follow their relatives in immigrating to Israel, they were told that because around the time their great-grandfather came to Peru many Jewish men in that area of the country married local women, it was reasonable to conclude that their great-grandfather had done the same, and their great-grandmother was not Jewish.

The Interior Ministry began reviewing the eligibility of would-be Jewish immigrants from Latin America, including from the Peruvian city of Iquitos, where the petitioners lived, in 2008, after a new person became responsible for examining immigration eligibility under the Law of Return. As soon as doubt was cast on the religious identity of the petitioner’s grandmother, the state halted their immigration, already in an advanced stage, on the grounds that they were not eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

The family presented evidence that their great-grandmother had been Jewish, including a photograph of her gravestone in Peru, which has a Star of David. The Interior Ministry deemed that insufficient evidence, after learning that non-Jewish relatives of Jews were in some cases buried in the cemetery.

Justices Daphne Barak-Erez, Hanan Melcer and Esther Hayut were unanimous in their decision to recognized the petitioners as Jews, ruling that the Interior Ministry’s reversal of its recognition of the great-grandmother’s Jewish identity was not based on sufficient evidence.

“The society in which the petitioners live does not follow the well-paved tradition preserved for centuries among Diaspora Jewish communities. Therefore, they naturally could not point to community or other lists to confirm their Jewish identity,” noted Barak-Erez in the ruling.

Continuing, she added: “The problem is that this is not a necessary test for applying the Law of Return. The complexity of Jewish life in modern times created different patterns of life, both in far-flung communities as well as entirely outside the Jewish community. The Law of Return’s goal was to enable the absorption of Jews from around the world in Israel, not only those who lived an organized Jewish communal life in a country with a proper listing regarding the Jewishness of its citizens. On the contrary, the goal was to ingather, among others, those eligible from ‘dispersed’ places in the spirit of ‘Draw our scattered ones near, from among the nations, and bring in our dispersions from the ends of the earth.’”

She stressed that this goal did not eliminate the need and even duty to thoroughly examine the religious status of prospective immigrants who assert the right of return. However, Barak-Erez noted, the examination must take into account the heterogeneity of Jewish life and the historical reasons for the dispersal of Jews throughout the world.

“Let us not replace the question ‘Who is a Jew?’ with the question ‘What is a Jewish community?,’ added Barak-Erez.

Hayut joined Barak-Erez’s ruling, asserting that “these are unique circumstances, and as long as the matter touches relatives of such proximity, the extent of damage to the interests of the petitioners in the wake of denying their request indeed justifies more powerful administrative evidence than that which the Interior Ministry provided in the name of counteracting the eligibility at their disposal.”

Melcer added that while in this instance it was right to accept the petition, such matters should be judged on a case-by-case basis.

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