Israel Must Stop Revoking Immigrants' Citizenship Retroactively, Attorney General Says

Legal opinion by comes in response to ministry’s review of citizenship of immigrants seeking residency for foreign spouses

Michael Tchibonen and his partner Ina
Meged Gozani

A deputy attorney general has stated that the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority must cease its practice of reviewing the citizenship status of Israelis seeking residency status in Israel for their spouses. The agency has taken to reviewing the citizenship status of new immigrants applying for residency for their spouses, even if they had been granted citizenship years ago. In almost all cases, the individuals involved were immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Following discussions in recent months by the Knesset State Control Committee, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber issued an opinion stating that the authority should no longer reopen citizenship files of people whose documents were missing in the Interior Ministry or Nativ, the government liaison agency that once handled citizenship applications for people from the Soviet Union. The only exception would be if prior to the review, the authority had significant evidence that the citizenship had been fraudulently obtained.

Alexander Sorov of Petah Tikva, 52, applied three years ago to the authority for residency status for his wife, a Ukrainian citizen, but has received no response. Sorov came to live in Israel from the former Soviet Union 26 years ago as an adult, and served in the IDF reserves for many years. His first wife was from France; they had two daughters who were both granted Israeli citizenship. Five years ago the couple separated and subsequently divorced. Around the time of the separation, Sorov met Yelena, a Ukrainian citizen, and three years ago, after they were married, the couple applied for permanent residency status for Yelena. As part of the process, Sorov was asked to submit documents regarding his own citizenship status.

“For three years we’ve been waiting for a response from them. My wife has been in Israel for six years and we married over three years ago and she still only has a work visa. The last time, a few months ago, they gave her a visa for a year and told us to wait, as if they were checking on me,” Sorov said. He added that his mother had been the one to arrange their move to Israel and he had never seen the relevant documents until he applied for residency for Yelena. “They asked me to bring everything I had left. I found my grandmother’s birth certificate at my mother’s. They told me it was forged. I said I don’t know anything about that.”

Alexander Sorov and his partner Yelena
Tomer Appelbaum

Yelena’s work visa does not allow her healthcare coverage or other basic social rights.

Over a month ago, attorney Nicole Maor of the Reform Movement’s legal aid center for new immigrants filed an appeal demanding that Yelena be granted citizenship, but the Population, Immigration and Border Authority has not yet responded.

The Citizenship Law grants the interior minister the right to revoke citizenship if it was obtained on the basis of “false information.” To revoke the citizenship of a person who has lived in Israel for more than three years, the Interior Ministry must apply to the court.

At a meeting called last week by Zilber, representatives of the authority said that reviews of citizenship have been conducted for years now, any time an Israeli citizen seeks citizenship for a spouse. The representatives said the Authority does so very cautiously, and that over the last decade the agency has not applied to the court even once to revoke citizenship based on false information.

Nevertheless, the authority indeed threatened to revoke long-standing citizenship in the case of Michael Tchibonen, 25 years after he came to live in Israel. Tchibonen, 33, was born in Georgia and came to live in Israel with his mother under the Law of Return. He met his partner, Ina, a Russian citizen, when she was in Israel as a tourist. They kept in touch and two years ago his request for an entry visa to Israel for Ina was granted, so they could begin the process of obtaining residency status for her. When they began the process, they were referred by the Population, Immigration and Border Authority to Nativ, which informed Tchibonen that he had to provide additional documents to prove that he was Jewish.

Tchibonen explained that all the documents had been handed over to the state 25 years ago and he had not kept copies. Ina’s residency permit was extended by a few months, but Tchibonen was told that his status was still under review. Six months ago, the agency informed him and Ina that after a thorough review, the documents regarding his move to Israel “do not prove your eligibility according to the Law of Return and the Entry to Israel Law.” Nativ, the authority told him, had recommended that his citizenship be revoked.

Tchibonen said that when he asked the authority representative what he should do, she advised him to give up his Jewish status to prevent his citizenship from being revoked, and apply for status for Ina, but he refused.

Last month they petitioned the High Court of Justice asking to order the authority to put an end to their policy of examining citizenship retroactively.

The couple’s lawyer, Haya Mena, praised the new rules and said the previous policy was illegal and discriminatory. But the new policy must also apply to past cases too and not only in the future, because any such revocation of citizenship was done illegally and without authority – and in these cases citizenship must be restored, she said.

Officials from Nativ told Zilber that they are only acting as advisers to the authority because of their experience and expertise in examining documents and information provided by immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They only deal with cases where the foreigner in the couple comes from these countries, while the Jewish Agency for Israel handles family reunification requests of Israelis with relatives from other countries, said the Nativ officials.

Officials from the legal department in the Prime Minister’s Office said Nativ is not authorized to aid the Population, Immigration and Border Authority in such investigations. The cabinet decision defining Nativ’s mission does not grant it the authority to deal with the status of those who have already immigrated to Israel and received citizenship, but only those who are requesting to make aliyah under the auspices of the Law of Return, said the PMO’s legal department.

Zilber’s legal opinion states that citizenship is a fundamental constitutional right and the Supreme Court has ruled there is a need to act very cautiously when it comes to revoking this right. She said the authority has the option of receiving help from Nativ to check out whether citizenship was received based on false information, but only as long as this aid is limited to specific cases and not across the board, and as long as Nativ “remains in the position of providing advice because of its expertise only in the forgery of information and documents.”

Yadin Elam, a lawyer who represents couples facing such difficulties, said the present situation is discriminatory. “As opposed to what the [Population] authority says, if you made aliyah from the former Soviet Union and married someone from New Zealand or America, they will not reexamine if you or your family had the right to immigrate to Israel,” he said.

“Only if you marry someone from the former Soviet Union, the authority will take advantage of the opportunity it chanced upon to examine it, in order to examine you too. Most people are annoyed by this but because they don’t have any real problem in producing the documents, they will not begin a fight with [the authority] now and delay the approval of the request. This is very serious, it is discrimination against people only on the basis of who they marry,” added Elam.