Overseas participants in study and travel programs in Israel may soon be spared the hassle of having to prove their Jewish lineage should they wish to extend their stay in the country.
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The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is set to decide on Sunday whether to push forward a bill that would automatically grant participants in such programs an extra six months on their visas so that they could legally work in the country while exploring the possibility of immigration.
The bill, submitted by MK Nachman Shai from the Zionist Union party, comes in response to scores of complaints over the years by Birthright and Masa participants whose visa requests have been denied or held up because they were unable to provide sufficient proof of their Jewish roots. Birthright brings tens of thousands of young Jewish adults to Israel each year on free 10-day trips, and Masa runs hundreds of government-subsidized study, volunteer and internship programs in the country.
To sign up for a Masa program or a Birthright trip, participants must declare they are Jewish but are not required to provide documents as proof.
For many of these program participants, particularly those whose families are not members of synagogues, producing documented evidence of Jewish lineage can prove challenging. Left with little choice, many who would have otherwise stayed in the country have been forced to leave. Being recognized as Jewish, or as having at least one Jewish grandparent, grants immigrants to Israel automatic citizenship under the Law of Return.
“Here is a classic case of the state of Israel acting against its own interests,” said Shai, who heads the Knesset caucus devoted to strengthening ties with Jewish communities abroad. “We bring tens of thousands of Jews from around the world here every year, in the hope that not only will they get a taste of the country, but that they’ll also want to live here. And then we force them to leave if they can’t prove they’re Jewish right away.”
The Knesset Aliyah and Absorption Committee held a special session almost two years ago to address the growing number of complaints from Birthright and Masa participants whose requests to extend their stays in Israel had been denied.
The Knesset committee members resolved to ask the Interior Ministry to change existing procedures so that participants in these programs could extend their stays automatically. The ministry, however, never followed through. As a result, a group of more than a dozen Knesset members, representing parties across the political spectrum, took the initiative to draft a bill that would provide each participant in Masa and Birthright with an automatic six-month work visa. The legislation was drawn up in conjunction with ITIM – an organization that helps new immigrants navigate Israel’s religious bureaucracy.
The bill never came up for a vote, though, because the previous government fell before it was scheduled for hearing. After elections in March, Shai decided to resubmit it as a private legislative initiative. All private bills require special approval from the Ministerial Legislative Committee before they can move forward.
ITIM founder and executive director Seth Farber said his organization receives calls every day from young people anxious they will have to leave the country for lack of documented evidence that they are Jewish. “We are aware of how difficult this can be for a young person who hasn’t been affiliated with a Jewish community overseas,” he said. “We want to see these young people connect to Israel without having to jump through bureaucratic obstacles.”
When Birthright and Masa participants are prevented from extending their stays in Israel, he warned, “it not only affects them, but reverberates to the Jewish communities in the diaspora.”
Noting that the government spends millions of dollars trying to encourage immigration to Israel, Farber said the new bill, if passed into legislation, would enable more young Jews to consider such a move.