Israel Rolls Out Red Tape Instead of Red Carpet for Many Russian Jews Seeking Aliyah

Lawyers for applicants rejected without clear explanations find it tough to challenge many of these cases legally, and accuse government agencies handling immigration of a lack of transparency

Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
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Stop for control. Some aliyah eligibility cases have dragged on for many years.
Stop for control. Some aliyah eligibility cases have dragged on for many years.
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

Many Jewish citizens of former soviet countries, who were once welcomed to israel with open arms, now find that their applications for aliyah get bogged down for years in red tape and bureaucracy.

Would-be immigrants describe long waiting periods and unexplained rejections from Nativ ― the government agency in charge of determining eligibility for aliyah.

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Lydia Dolinsky in Safed, whose son has been denied an aliyah visa,Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Nativ operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. It used to operate as a secret organization, but the way cases have been handled suggests the veil of secrecy has not totally been lifted.

Lydia Dolinsky, 70, has lived in Safed for five years since moving to Israel on her own accord from the Russian city of Ryazan. By making aliyah she’s been separated from her son, Michail, 40, who, diagonosed with schizophrenia, has been living in a Russian psychiatric hospital.

Dolinsky says that Nativ refuses to grant her son an aliyah visa, and has not responded to numerous requests for an explanation.

Yadin Elam, Dolinsky’s attorney representing her on behalf of the Global Aliyah organization, has also been unable to find out an answer. Last month, Nativ informed Elam that the case was moved to the Interior Ministry’s Population Authority. But the authority says it is not familiar with the case.

Journalist and blogger Bozhena Rynska: Paternal links to Judaism questioned.Credit: Courtesy

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The government rejected aliyah applications from 4,900 Russians and 4,500 Ukrainians between 2006 and 2016, according to data provided by Nativ in response to a freedom of information request submitted by attorney Eli Gervits. Presumably the figure might be higher if all former Soviet countries were taken into account.

Some aliyah eligibility cases have dragged on for many years, and rejection notices are often given without any clear reason, which makes it difficult for the applicant to file an appeal.

Until recently, ambiguity surrounding the reason for rejecting aliyah applicants was Nativ’s official policy. The organization has not provided rejections in writing for repeat applications and the aliyah department at the Moscow embassy has put up a sight saying no reasons would be provided for rejected applications.

The attorney-general ordered the policy revised late last year following inquiries from Gervits and Elam. Nativ now offers responses in writing though the notices are brief, and often fail to provide any details about the cause for rejection.

Your mother is Jewish, but you are not

Bozhena Rynska, a journalist and well-known blogger in Russia, has been waiting six years for an aliya visa, Gervits says.

Rynska, whose father is Jewish, decided to make aliya in 2012 due to tensions with Russian authorities over her participation in an anti-government protest. But Nativ has not provided any assistance, she says. She went to the aliya department at the Israeli embassy in Moscow nine times, and each time was asked to bring new documents.

Popova family members rejected for aliyah. Israeli authorities challenge their Jewish links.Credit: Courtesy

One of the papers she was asked for was an additional document for a group of documents she had already submitted attesting to a job she had held many years ago.

In response to the administrative petition Gervits filed with the Jerusalem District Court on behalf of Rynska and two other Russian citizens seeking to immigrate to Israel, Nativ told the court that Rynska “was born just three months after her parents’ marriage, and in such a case, proof of paternity is needed in order to make a decision.”

Gervits’ request that Nativ present a written guideline for addressing the matter has yet to be met in court.

Nativ's head Neta Briskin-Peleg declined a request from Haaretz to see Nativ's guidelines, saying only that the organization operates in accordance with the regulations of the Population and Immigration Authority, which apply to all those eligible under for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, not only those from the former Soviet Union.

Haaretz asked the Population Authority to present its guidelines, or to clarify whether there is actually a guideline regarding the right of the child of a Jewish parent to make aliya cannot be recognized if the child was born “too close” to the parents’ wedding date.

The Authority said that just because Nativ adheres to its procedures “doesn’t mean that Nativ officials don’t get to exercise significant independence of judgment.”

A businessman from Moscow, who wished to remain unidentified, says he submitted an aliya application in 2014. Only recently after a freedom of information request filed by Gervits, did he and his wife receive identical letters from Nativ, which said: “Your application is rejected because you were born to a Jewish mother and you are of a different religion,” with no further explanation.

Attorney Yadin ElamCredit: Moti Milrod

But the man says he has never converted to another faith. He calls himself a “good Jew” who has been donating for years to the Chabad synagogue in Moscow, attends synagogue on Jewish holidays and fasts on Yom Kippur. His wife, however, has gone to church from an early age.

“She wrote about this honestly (in the questionnaire she filled out at the embassy),” the man says. “It’s her right,” he insists.

Although his religion has nothing to do with that of his wife, Nativ somehow decided that he had converted to another faith. The organization also refuses to reveal the questionnaire he filled out on which he declared himself a Jew under the section of nationality and under the section on religion.

You can’t argue with a sphinx

The delays and failure to provide written explanations are in violation of a law that requires civil servants to respond in writing within 45 days and include an explanation for any decision.

Gervits says of Nativ’s failure to provide explanations that "they’re violating the law and meanwhile obtaining a tactical advantage in court.”

Gervits has filed petitions for years for rejected aliya applicants, but now avoids approaching the High Court without knowing the rationale behind such obscure reasons provided as “belated recognition of paternity,” “criminal past” or “change of religion.”

“You can’t argue with a sphinx,” says Gervits, quoting the late justice Moshe Landau.

Gervits says it is tough to contest a decision when the only reason provided for a rejection is “due to professional guidelines of the Population and Immigration Authority.”

“If you have such rules, then let’s hear what they are,” he says. “If there aren’t any, then just say that you decide to do whatever you want with each case. The information is not yours, it belongs to the public.”

Elam says another difficulty in challenging Nativ's decisions is that its representatives avoid giving any answer to rejected applicants, and recommend that the applicant come to Israel and try on their own to have their status recognized by the Population Authority, which amounts to recommending to those rejected for immigration to come to Israel as tourists and wage a bureaucratic or legal battle once in the country, until their tourist visa expires.

Elam sees this as peculiar advice coming from an organization whose main purpose is to determine whether or not a person is eligible for aliyah.

“Nativ is supposed to be executing the policy of the Population Authority,” says Elam. “They are in close contact with the authority. If you don’t know what to do in a certain case, then talk about it and make a decision. Why send someone to Israel?”  

Attorney Eli GervitsCredit: Denis Polischuk

Nativ head Briskin-Peleg says, “there are complicated cases in which the Nativ consul cannot make a clear-cut decision on eligibility.

In such cases, the Population and Immigration Authority is the final arbiter. There are cases that are transferred to the Population Authority for a decision and in which there is no need for the family to come to Israel, and there are cases where the applicant’s physical presence in Israel is required.

But, at least in the year that I have served as head of the organization, the number of these cases has been close to zero. I am certainly against bringing the family here.”

"Genetic testing are not sufficient"

Nadezhda Popova, a 65-year-old math teacher from Karpinsk, whose father was Jewish, is another case in point. She and her husband and son contacted Nativ in 2014 to apply for an aliya visa.

The organization decided she had insufficient proof of her father's paternity, and advised Nadezhda to have tissue testing done with an aunt who lives in Israel and is registered as Jewish by the Population Authority.

After an initial test was inconclusive, a second test was done that indicated the two had a greater than a 99-percent chance of being related. The family court in Haifa provided an expert opinion that both Nadezhda’s relatives living in Israel are her relatives.

The Popovas presented the findings to Nativ in 2016 but the organization refused them a visa, and advised them to come to Israel and resolve the issue with the Population Authority.

The authority’s offices in Haifa referred them back to Nativ. Late last year the Population Authority finally decided to reject the application. Elam says the decision was never delivered to the family and Nativ refused his request to relay it to them.

“This hurts me so much. I am the daughter of a Jew, I have the right to make aliyah,” says Nadezhda. “My whole life I was humiliated for being a Jew, And now Israel won’t accept me either.” The Population Authority says that “the court ruling says the results of the genetic testing are not sufficient to permit the applicant’s entry into Israel” and that “the applicant must present documents proving her eligibility in accordance with the Law of Return.”

Briskin-Peleg declined to comment on the cases presented in this article, citing privacy concerns. In response to other questions, she said, “Nativ’s source of authority is the Population and Immigration Authority and reviews of eligibility are done in accordance with the procedures of the Interior Ministry and based upon the Law of Return.

An eligibility review is made on the basis of original documents that have been determined to be sufficient for proving eligibility, and when applicants do not have documents that unequivocally prove their eligibility, eligibility cannot be determined.

"Therefore in certain cases, additional documents are needed to complete the picture. As of now, anyone who comes to the consulate and is not found to be eligible for aliya receives a written answer with an explanation of the reasons for the rejection.

"When additional documents are needed, the applicant does not receive a negative answer but tries to gather more documents to prove his eligibility, and of course may go back to the consulate and request to submit more documents. Unfortunately, not all applicants are able to come up with documents to prove their eligibility.”

The Population Authority says “Nativ is authorized to determine eligibility for aliya on the basis of the Law of Return” and that all of the procedures may be found on the authority’s website. But there is nothing on the website that lists the rules for determining aliya eligibility.

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