Israel Broke Immigration Rules in Refusing Venezuelan Jews Citizenship

Interior Ministry says nine Venezuelan converts haven't been active in Jewish community long enough to be allowed in Israel, but documents obtained by Haaretz show this is not the case.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A photo of a young girl from Venezuelan converts community.
A photo of a young girl from Venezuelan converts community.Credit: Courtesy
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The Ministry of Interior ignored its own criteria when ruling that a group of nine Venezuelan converts were not eligible to immigrate to Israel, documentation obtained by Haaretz shows.

As reported last week, the converts were notified that their visa applications had been rejected because they had not been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for a long enough period. All nine – five adults and four children – were converted by a Conservative rabbinical court in early 2014, before the economic crisis in Venezuela erupted. They are currently facing shortages in food and medicine.

According to the Law of Return, which determines eligibility for immigration, Jewish converts who wish to move to Israel are required to have undergone conversion in a “recognized Jewish community” – one with a full-time rabbi and an active synagogue. They must then spend at least nine months actively engaged in Jewish communal life in a recognized Jewish community before they can move to Israel. Where no “recognized Jewish community” exists, as in this particular case, the Ministry of Interior has said it requires a longer period of engagement in Jewish communal life following the conversion.

When asked specifically how many months, a spokesman forwarded Haaretz a list of criteria pertaining to converts seeking immigration visas.

According to these criteria, where no recognized Jewish community exists, converts are required to spend 18 months as members of the closest nearby recognized Jewish community once they have completed the conversion process. Documentation provided by the Venezuelan converts to Israeli authorities and obtained by Haaretz attest to the fact that they have been members of the recognized Jewish community of Valencia since June 2015 – in other words more than 18 months.

In addition, the Ministry of Interior criteria stipulate that in cases where converts want to move to Israel before they have completed their required period of active engagement in Jewish life abroad, they are allowed to do so under certain conditions. In such cases, they are not entitled to citizenship immediately upon arrival in Israel, but rather, they must wait until they have completed the entire period of active engagement in Jewish life. Thus, for example, had they spent nine months actively engaged in Jewish life in Venezuela following their conversions, they would have been required to complete another nine months in Israel before being granted citizenship.

When presented with the evidence that the converts abided by the Ministry of Interior’s own criteria, a spokesman said: “We have no intention of holding a discussion about this in the media. If they would like to appeal this decision, there are accepted ways of doing that.”

Speaking with Haaretz, a member of the group, who asked that he not be identified by name out of fear of repercussions, said he felt “truly disappointed” by the Ministry of Interior’s decision. “We have been left to infer that they mistrust our reasons for making aliyah,” he said.

In this June 2, 2016 file photo, people at a protest demanding food in Caracas, Venezuela, triggered by rising frustration with food shortages and inflation. Credit: Ariana Cubillos/AP

Since the Ministry of Interior has not challenged the validity of the conversions, he said, “it makes us suspect that there are other reasons behind their decision.”

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.

Prominent rabbis from across the religious spectrum have responded with outrage to the Interior Ministry’s decision to ban the nine Venezuelan converts from immigrating to Israel.

The current interior minister is Arye Dery, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

When reviewing requests to immigrate to Israel, the Ministry of Interior usually consults with the Jewish Agency and relies on its recommendations. In this case, it did not. Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, is said to be considering intervening on behalf of the nine Venezuelans.

The nine Venezuelan applicants are members of three families from the town of Maracay, where no recognized Jewish community exists. They were converted by a rabbinical court comprised of three American rabbis, all certified by the Conservative movement, following three years of study.

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