Bowing to intense public pressure, the Interior Ministry on Tuesday agreed to allow a group of nine Venezuelan converts to immigrate to Israel.
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As part of the deal hammered out in the Knesset, the Venezuelans, who were converted by the Conservative movement, will be allowed to come to Israel immediately provided that they undergo a second “symbolic” conversion to Judaism.
Leaders of the Conservative movement protested this condition, terming it degrading, but said they had no choice but to accept it since the converts faced a life-and-death situation in Venezuela. Suffering from shortages of food and medicine, they live in a remote area of the country where their safety is at risk.
The compromise deal was reached during a tense and often emotional session of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. A representative of the Foreign Ministry, attending the session, warned that Israel’s refusal to grant immigration visas to the nine converts had sparked widespread outrage in the Jewish world threatening Israel’s image abroad. It had exacerbated existing tensions with Diaspora Jews, he said, over Israel’s treatment of the non-Orthodox movements.
As part of the compromise, the converts will not be eligible for automatic citizenship under the Law of Return when they arrive in Israel. Rather, they will have to prove that they have been actively engaged in a Jewish communal life for a minimum period of nine months before they can be naturalized.
The basic principles of the compromise were drafted by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who welcomed the outcome. "I am pleased that our compromise was accepted by all parties at today’s Knesset hearing on the matter and that the individuals in question will be able to come to Israel without delay,” he said. "The Jewish Agency will continue to serve as the primary platform for conversation between all the Jewish denominations and the government of Israel and will continue to do whatever is necessary to facilitate the Aliyah of every Jew who wishes to make Israel his or her home.”
Interior Ministry representatives attending the session said the Venezuelans had initially been denied immigration visas because they had not been converted in what is referred to as a “recognized Jewish community” and did not join one until more than a year after they had been converted.
The nine converts are all from the town of Maracay, where no recognized Jewish community exists. Following three years of study, in early 2014, they were converted by a Conservative rabbinical court, comprised of three American rabbis. For the past year-and-a-half, they have been active members of a synagogue in Valencia, a recognized Jewish community, which is about an hour’s drive away.
Jewish Agency officials attending the session, including a former envoy to that region of South America, noted that under the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, making that drive has become extremely risky.
MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union), who initiated the Knesset hearing, burst into tears at the conclusion, saying that while she was thrilled that “our brothers” – as she referred to the Venezuelans – would finally be permitted to immigrate to Israel, the decision by the Interior Ministry not to recognize the original conversions was “mean-spirited.”
Rabbi Andy Sacks, head of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement in Israel, called the requirement for reconversion “a disgrace and a show of contempt” for non-Orthodox Jews. Sacks, who led the campaign on behalf of the Venezuelan converts, will be traveling there over the next few days to oversee the reconversions.
As part of the compromise reached, the Venezuelans will undergo a “symbolic” conversion, meaning that they will not have to begin the entire process from scratch, but rather, they will have to immerse themselves in a mikveh, or ritual bath, once again and repeat a declaration saying they intend to become part of the Jewish people. It is not yet clear whether the men will be required to undergo another symbolic drawing of blood, in place of an actual circumcision.
When determining the eligibility of converts, the Law of Return does not distinguish between those converted by Orthodox, Conservative or Reform rabbis. In practice, though, applications submitted by Orthodox converts tend to be approved more easily. Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, said he was convinced that the demand for reconversions – which he described as “Kafkaesque” – would not have been required had the original conversions been undertaken by Orthodox rabbis.
“This demand is a spit in the face for us,” he said. “But we are going to accept it because it is more important that we save these Venezuelan Jews.”
The nine Venezuelans – five adults and four children belonging to three families – plan to join the Conservative congregation in Beersheba when they arrive in Israel, according to Sacks.
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) described the Ministry of Interior’s initial decision to bar the converts from Israel as “scandalous.”
“This is not the British or the Ottomans who are telling Jews they cannot come to Israel,” she said. “This is the government of Israel, the state of the Jewish people.”
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an evangelical-funded charity that invests heavily in promoting immigration to Israel, offered on Tuesday to help fund the flights of the nine Venezuelans to Israel as well as their upkeep during their first nine months in the country when they will not yet be eligible for benefits provided to immigrants under the Law of Return.