American Jews Dreaming of Moving to Israel May Have to Wait for Better Times

Among the complications is a criminal background check that has stymied the timelines of some who planned to come now despite the coronavirus pandemic

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Seventeen new immigrants from North America at Ben-Gurion Airport, May 5, 2020.
Seventeen new immigrants from North America at Ben-Gurion Airport, May 5, 2020.Credit: Yonit Schiller
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

It has been a matter of pride for Israel that Jewish immigration to the country has continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic. As the Jewish Agency has declared on numerous occasions in recent months: “Aliyah to Israel has never stopped and never will stop.”

Indeed, when Israel decided to close its borders to foreign nationals two months ago to prevent the spread of the pandemic, it made one exception: immigrants.

Because many other countries also closed their borders and suspended commercial flights, in practice, the number of immigrants arriving has naturally slowed to a trickle. The United States has distinguished itself as one of the few countries from which aliyah was still possible.

But as a result of various bureaucratic obstacles – some, but not all, related to the pandemic – that no longer seems to be the case. In fact, it appears that immigrating to Israel from the United States these days has become all but impossible.

One of the main reasons is a brand-new requirement that all immigrants coming through Nefesh B’Nefesh – the organization that handles aliyah from North America on behalf of the Jewish Agency – complete a criminal background check. The new requirement came into effect earlier this month.

Criminal background checks can take many months in the United States, but in certain locations – such as the New York metropolitan area – the process cannot even begin at this time because the relevant offices are closed. A substantial share of the immigrants coming to Israel from the United States have traditionally been from the New York metropolitan area.

For the past 10 years, criminal background checks have been required of all individuals immigrating to Israel. The one exception was immigrants coming through Nefesh B’Nefesh, and the Israeli Interior Ministry had agreed to allow Nefesh B’Nefesh to conduct the background checks itself, a ministry source said.

Despite major protests from Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Interior Ministry notified the organization several weeks ago that it was suspending the agreement and that all immigrants from North America would from now on be required to undergo proper criminal background examinations.

“By doing this, they essentially guarantee that you cannot complete the process and get on a plane, and it’s hard to imagine that this was not deliberate,” said a New Yorker who had planned on making aliyah with his family this summer and asked not to be identified by name.

Asked for comment, Naftali Deroven, the head of aliyah services at Nefesh B’Nefesh, said: “I think requiring criminal background checks is a good thing for the State of Israel, but the timing of this is miserable.”

For her part, however, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said she was “astounded that anyone could find something wrong with this requirement.”

Another key impediment to immigration, Deroven said, is that the Interior Ministry has stopped issuing so-called aliyah visas. These are visas certifying that an individual has been deemed eligible by the Jewish Agency to immigrate under the Law of Return, which confers the right to immigrate to those with at least one Jewish grandparent, or who are married to a Jew or have converted in an established Jewish community.

But on March 18, the Interior Ministry announced that new aliyah visas would not be issued until July 1. As a result, only individuals who obtained their visas before March 18 have been able to make aliyah.

Compounding the difficulties is the fact that all individuals applying for aliyah are required to have face-to-face interviews with Jewish Agency officials stationed abroad. Since the coronavirus outbreak, such face-to-face meetings have become impossible. Only very recently did the Jewish Agency activate a system that allows for online videoconference interviews via Zoom.

Another challenge, Deroven said, is finding flights for the immigrants. Nefesh B’Nefesh has always worked exclusively through El Al, but Israel’s national airline has suspended all of its regular commercial flights for the time being. This has forced Nefesh B’Nefesh to scramble to find seats for immigrants on other airlines, such as United Airlines, which still has regular flights to Israel. Last week, Nefesh B’Nefesh brought 17 immigrants from New York to Israel on an El Al flight that had just flown in cargo.

According to Deroven, about 100 American Jews who have already been approved for aliyah are still waiting to find seats on flights to Israel. A similar number, who have begun their application process, cannot complete it, he said, because aliyah visas are not being issued by the Interior Ministry.

Asked for comment, Jewish Agency spokeswoman Hagit Halali said: “We do not spare any efforts in bringing immigrants to Israel at this time, and we are operating a new global call center that provides services for anyone interested in aliyah anywhere in the world. Because the aliyah process takes several months, anyone who starts it now can complete it as planned, in accordance with the new special requirements.”

All immigrants arriving in Israel these days, like returning Israelis, are required to spend 14 days in quarantine.

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