The Red-tape Two-step

A former Israeli air force pilot-turned-professor and a talented advertising executive met in Manila, fell in love and married in a Jewish ceremony in the United States. She converted and they decided to live in Israel, but the Interior Ministry won't grant her citizenship. Why? Ask Eli Yishai.

At quarter to nine on a Thursday night, the dance floor at the Beit Hanoar community center in Jerusalem is still empty. The music comes in fits and starts over the sound system while the instructor makes preparations for the weekly folk-dancing session. This doesn't bother Roberta (Robbie ) and Arieh Ben-Naim: They're already swaying to some inner beat, smiling at one another as they catch snatches of familiar Hebrew songs. They can't wait for the evening to begin and are already practicing some steps. Little by little, about 60 more people - men and women covering a wide age range, some in pairs, some on their own - trickle in and the circle of dancers expands.

The Ben-Naims beam. For the next three hours they happily float along, following the instructor's cues, alternating between group and couple dances.

Arieh and Roberta Ben-Naim
Yuval Tebol

"See what excellent control she has," exclaims 76-year-old Prof. Ben-Naim admiringly, as he stops for a moment to get a drink of water. "I think she's already a better dancer than me. She knows more than 100 dances," he adds with a laugh, hurrying back to the circle. Half an hour later, Robbie stops for a few minutes and says with a giggle, "I like to take little breaks and watch from the side. Just look at him: Doesn't he look like a little boy?"

She gazes lovingly at her energetically dancing husband and starts to say something else about her spouse, but her voice is drowned out by a song composed on behalf of Gilad Shalit which is played at a higher volume.

"I have to get back to dancing," says this woman in English, born 52 years ago in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, who for the past six years has been doing her utmost to become part of Israeli society out of love for her husband. "I feel that this dance isn't just for the sake of dancing. Now it's more than that, it's about dedicating a dance to Gilad."

Three times a week, the Ben-Naims escape their bureaucratic "dance" with the intractable powers-that-be (in the form of Israel's Interior Ministry ) and find solace in their shared love of Israeli folk dancing. Lately, Prof. Ben-Naim has despaired to the point where he is considering leaving the country permanently and giving up the exhausting struggle that he and his wife have been tenaciously waging - a struggle that revolves around the request that their marriage and Robbie's Jewishness be recognized, and that she be granted new immigrant status and Israeli citizenship.

Lying on the coffee table in the living room of their spacious apartment in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood are four chemistry textbooks in English (one of which was published by Oxford University Press ) - all written by Ben-Naim, a professor of physical chemistry who specializes in the molecular theory of water, in a burst of creativity in the past few years. The books are opened to reveal affectionate dedications to his wife, Robbie.

"Before we met, I was in a state of crisis. I was really in a bad way," he says. "All of these books were written after I met Robbie. She helped me polish the style with her excellent English. Soon we're going to publish a children's book about water, which we wrote together in English."

He enthusiastically pulls out some sketches and describes other books in the stages of preparation. But Ben-Naim isn't out to increase sales or do PR for his scientific writing. He wants to achieve something that should be simpler than grasping the complexities of the chemical formulas that fill his books and have gained him a worldwide reputation.

"It's all thanks to Robbie that I got back into scientific work and into life at all. I may be a scientist, but I admit that this love is some kind of miracle," he adds with a bashful smile. "In 2003, I was in a state where nothing interested me at all: neither women, love, marriage nor science. I married for the first time at 23; I had three children and then I was separated for 20 years. At the time [early 2003], I was 68 and had just been through a tragic and painful second marriage that lasted two years, and had just retired from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where I taught all my life. I went to America for a breather, but mostly to get away from here. I was at the University of Kansas for four months and then at the University of Pittsburgh for four months. I gave some lectures and tried to write, but I was in a desperate state."

During his stay in the United States, Ben-Naim received an e-mail from a former girlfriend from the Philippines, whom he'd met 25 years earlier when he taught at a university in Manila.

"I was excited to get the e-mail," he says. "I told her that I'd lost interest in science and in life, and she told me that she'd [left, and] eventually gone back to her husband and that she was happy now. She wrote me that she had a friend and asked if I wanted to maybe start corresponding with her. I was feeling broken, lonely and pessimistic, and we started corresponding without any commitment whatsoever."

After several months of correspondence, Ben-Naim started to come back to life. "I liked the richness of her English," he says. "In her writing the high level and of the language immediately stood out, her way of thinking, her sensitivity. I could really feel the person behind the words. After nine months, I knew this was someone I really wanted to meet. It sparked something in me. I felt there was a chance."

Robbie sits beside him and describes what her life in Manila was like then. "I was an independent career woman, 45 years old, a mother of four and I didn't believe in love anymore either," she says.

"I was the oldest daughter and my mother died when I was 12. She had called me to her deathbed and asked me to take care of my siblings. I learned to survive from a young age. I have a combination of toughness, level-headedness and the ability to survive. My father was not a rich man, but he made sure I got a good education and dreamed of me becoming a lawyer. I think I disappointed him when I married at 19."

The marriage was very unhappy: "I was the breadwinner. I raised my children alone. My first husband was a lazy drunk and a gambler, a womanizer and wife-beater. The only good thing about that marriage were the four children. For 13 years I lived apart from my husband, but we didn't divorce. Over the years, I developed a career to support the family. I worked for an international advertising company and in the last decade I developed my own advertising business. When my friend suggested that I start corresponding with Arieh, I didn't expect it to turn into love. I didn't believe in love anymore. Who ever thought such a thing would happen this late in life?" she asks with a smile.

After nine months of corresponding, Robbie and Arieh met in Manila. "She really impressed me and I thought to myself: I'm going to go for it," he relates. "We were together for four months. I fell in love and started thinking about living together."

Robbie was more hesitant. "It wasn't an easy decision," she says. "I had my business, my career, my children. We have tight family ties in the Philippines. I told myself: The kids are big now and they'll understand that I deserve to have the chance to live with someone who truly loves me, who cares for me as I care for him. The children won't stay children forever. I had to choose."

She gave up her career, left behind her three older children (the eldest is now 31 ) and brought her youngest daughter, who was 12 at the time, into the new family unit she created with Ben-Naim. "At that point we weren't yet thinking about an official wedding," they say.

In 2004, the three of them arrived in Israel with the intention of living here.

Ben-Naim: "I returned to Israel naturally because this is my country. I was born in Jerusalem and spent my whole childhood in the Mekor Barukh neighborhood, near the Mahane Yehuda market, close to Jaffa Street."

He breaks into a nostalgic smile as he recalls the Jerusalem of his childhood, its alleyways the Sokolov elementary school he attended which no longer exists, and Gymnasia Rehavia high school. "On my father's side, I'm fourth-generation in Israel, and my mother immigrated from Turkey in 1927. My father had a well-known ticket office in the city that sold tickets to cultural events."

Ben-Naim did his military service in the air force, and received his pilot's wings from Moshe Dayan. Following a flight accident, he switched to a cargo squadron. He says he owes his academic career to Avner Treinin, the scientist and poet and winner of the Bialik Prize. "He was my teacher in high school and my professor at the Hebrew University, and he pushed me to study physical chemistry. Thanks to his guidance, I found my niche in theoretical chemistry, which involves mathematics - a favorite of mine. I got my doctorate and over the years I gained international renown, and chose to live here and teach at the Hebrew University all my life."

Arieh Ben-Naim getting his wings from Moshe Dayan

Wandering family

Upon their arrival in Israel in 2004, Ben-Naim went to a lawyer and prepared a prenuptial agreement with Robbie, in the belief that as long as they were not officially married yet, it would serve as testament to their relationship and convince the Interior Ministry to grant her permanent resident status. "I considered her my spouse and didn't want her to have a tourist visa that would have to be renewed every three months," he explains. "I didn't think of her as a tourist, I thought of her as my partner."

Robbie's first encounter with ministry personnel was upsetting: "We wanted to extend my visa. While Arieh was still looking for parking, I went upstairs and said politely, 'Good morning, my fiance is parking the car. I've come to extend my visa.' And the fellow shouted at me: 'Who are you? Tell your boyfriend to come in here.'"

Robbie pauses, takes a deep breath and explains: "You understand? He didn't want to speak with me. It was insulting. Yes, I spoke in English because I'm not fluent in Hebrew, but is that any way to respond to a person who addresses you politely? The message I got from it, the way it made me feel - and this is not scientific, of course," she smiles, "is that because I'm Filipina I don't deserve to be treated properly. And that I will only receive proper and civilized treatment if I come to your government offices accompanied by a local person."

Ben-Naim tries to assuage her. "Robbie, the clerk shouted at me too over the years. I think they're rude to everyone."

Robbie continues: "There was another incident last year when I came on my own with the documents. I gave the clerk my passport. She glanced at it and then instead of politely handing it back or just setting it down, she hurled it at me. I was stunned. This is how an official bureaucrat behaves? And this passport has significance. It's not just another piece of paper. Two weeks later I came back with Arieh and the same clerk behaved in a civilized and courteous way. How would you interpret that? What does that say? That if I'm Filipina it's okay to treat me like I'm from some inferior race? That I should be treated kindly only if I'm accompanied by an Israeli?"

Robbie's application for permanent resident status was rejected. "Not only did they reject it, they said she had to leave the country immediately," recalls her husband. "I wasn't going to part with her because of the Interior Ministry's policy. I checked with colleagues around the world and found a position as a guest lecturer at the University of Burgos in Spain. I pleaded with [the ministry] to extend her visa for just two weeks more until we could get things arranged, but they said no to that, too."

They spent two years in Spain together. "Thanks to the Interior Ministry, my daughter and I are fluent in Spanish," Robbie says with a smile. During that time, they came to Israel for vacations. "This is where I want to live and to continue my scientific work, and I missed the country," Ben-Naim explains.

In 2006, the couple returned and applied once again for permanent residence status for Robbie. Again, the application was denied. "This time, I got yelled at," says Ben-Naim. "I explained to the clerk at the Interior Ministry that because of their policy, I - who was born here and want to live here and contribute in the field of science - am being forced to leave the country. And she shouted at me, 'Don't you threaten me!'"

In order to remain with Robbie and her daughter, Ben-Naim had to find yet another teaching position abroad. He soon was offered a job at the University of San Diego. They traveled first to Manila where Robbie had her first marriage officially dissolved. On July 9, 2007, Arieh and Robbie married in a civil ceremony in the Philippines.

"It was the first time we got married, but not the last," she laughs. "We have a lot of anniversaries on which to celebrate our love." And he adds: "In America, our marriage license was recognized. It enabled Robbie to obtain a visa and we were able to enroll her daughter in school."

During their time in America, Robbie began to express an interest in the Jewish community. "I always maintained a connection with the Conservative community when I was abroad," Ben-Naim explains. "That's my identity and I preserved it in the way that was right for my life - going to folk dancing, going to synagogue. Robbie began to get interested. We met a nice Conservative rabbi, and for six months she studied with him twice a week. We went to synagogue every Friday night and on the holidays. At the end of the process, she went to the mikveh [ritual bath], passed a test and received a conversion certificate on May 13, 2008."

'Lifelong journey'

Undergoing conversion was no superficial act, says Robbie: "I was always skeptical of Catholicism, even before I met Arieh, so my Catholic faith was flimsy. Love is more important to me than Christianity. I wanted us to become closer and I wanted to get closer to his world and understand it better and this is the way to do it: I know he loves living here in Israel and I want to live with him as a Jew and as an Israeli, not as an alienated foreigner."

After a brief silence, she adds: "For a marriage to succeed, you need to be in sync with your spouse. I chose to become a Jew and to get to know my husband's world and that's what I'm doing. I don't see this relationship as something short-term or as some kind of temporary adventure. It's a lifelong journey."

Ten days after her conversion, they married again. "We've had every possible kind of ceremony," laughs Ben-Naim, "from the prenuptial agreement, to the civil marriage in the Philippines to the Jewish wedding."

Nine months after the conversion, the couple returned to Israel and applied to the Interior Ministry for Robbie to be recognized as an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return. Ben-Naim also sought to have his status changed from divorced to married, and to have Robbie recognized as his spouse.

"We were sure that this time everything would be approved," he says. "We were married and she was converted. We went to the clerk at the Interior Ministry and she said something that I didn't understand: 'There's not much chance because the conversion is too recent. It was just done.' I asked for a clarification, but didn't get one. And then they asked us to produce countless documents - from the Philippines interior ministry and foreign ministry, and from the police in Manila. I don't know, maybe Robbie is an international criminal and her past needs to be checked," he chuckles.

"She hadn't lived in Manila for several years, but the Interior Ministry requested it, and you know what - I can accept that. A country has to do a careful check. They asked for all the documents to be submitted to the Israeli embassy in Manila so the consul could approve all the signatures. Of course, in the meantime, despite her conversion and our marriage, they wouldn't give her permanent resident status [here] so we had to leave again."

This time, Prof. Ben-Naim went to teach at Stockholm University in Sweden; meanwhile, he worked on obtaining all the documents: "A year later, at the end of May 2009, we returned to Israel with all the documents: the conversion certificate, the marriage certificate and lots of hope that this time Robbie would be recognized as my wife and granted basic rights like medical insurance, the possibility of studying in a Hebrew ulpan program like any new immigrant, recognition as a married woman, and all the rights granted to an immigrant under the Law of Return. We were told that examination of the application would take about two months, but it went on and on."

The couple were aghast when the reply finally arrived from the Interior Ministry, in February 2010. "After being forced to leave the country since 2004 because the ministry wouldn't give my wife permanent resident status and recognize her conversion and our marriage, we received a letter that said that since we'd entered the country on May 31, 2009, they requested proof that we belong to a Jewish community in Israel, and that the center of our lives is Israel. It dumbfounded me: I was born here, I served in the army, I'm a university professor here, I always had a home in Israel. I live here and want to live here. The only reason I lived abroad in recent years is because of the way the Interior Ministry acted. So because they forced us to leave the country and wander, I now have to prove that Israel is the center of my life?

"And what's this about belonging to a Jewish community? What, am I not a Jew? Was I not born in this country? My wife, who converted in a Conservative community in America - is she not considered Jewish? How do you prove you belong to a Jewish community? We do Israeli folk dancing. Will that do? I don't live in an ultra-Orthodox community and I'm not going to pretend to be ultra-Orthodox."

Ben-Naim says he contacted the ministry again and was astounded when he was told he had to start the whole process anew. "The clerk requested that we again collect all the documents from all the authorities in Manila, and all of Robbie's passports, and that we submit a new application. I told her I hadn't come to file a new application. She said that the ministry would give Robbie temporary status and check to see whether the marriage was real or fictitious. I asked what they'd done all year long with all the documents we'd already submitted, and she told me: 'That's not my job. I was given instructions. To start a new process.' This also entailed a payment of more than NIS 1,000. I told her thank-you very much and left.

"It's very frustrating," he continues. "I want Robbie to be able to study in an ulpan, to get a driver's license, to work - to live a normal life. For her to have rights, to be recognized like any other immigrant. I don't understand why they're treating us this way. Everyone tells me, 'Fight for your rights.' They say, 'You were a pilot, you fought,' but I don't want to use that. I'm not asking for favors. I'm asking for what every citizen is entitled to receive by law. It seems very clear to me. I'm not asking for anything because of who my father or my grandfather was, or because I'm a well-known professor. All I'm asking for is basic rights. Accept her legally as my wife. She converted. She married in a Jewish ceremony. Why isn't she considered a new immigrant? Why doesn't she receive citizenship under the Law of Return? Why isn't she being recognized as my wife?"

Labeled a carer

Robbie says that her children, with whom she keeps in touch via e-mails and phone calls, are amazed that she has yet to obtain citizenship. Meanwhile, just this week her tourist visa was extended.

"My son married a Japanese woman, lives in Japan and obtained citizenship in less than a year. My ex-husband lives in America and has a visa. My daughter, who joined him, already got a visa. The world is open to immigration today," she says. "I'm ashamed. I don't know how to explain to my children that even though I converted and had a kosher Jewish wedding and want to live in Israel, a government ministry doesn't think that's enough.

"I'm a very flexible person who adapts easily to different situations. But here I don't have a voice, I belong to a minority and it makes me feel very vulnerable and isolated. I remember how we'd be going up in the elevator and the neighbors would say hello to Arieh and ignore me and my daughter. They didn't bother to give me so much as a look. It's as if you're invisible."

Robbie fluctuates between being amused and feeling offended when Israelis automatically label her as a caretaker for the elderly.

"Filipinos work in other fields, too, you know," she says with a laugh. "I came from the world of advertising. I had my own business. But people on the street are always asking me if I'm looking for work as a caretaker. I have a clearly Filipina appearance, but that doesn't mean I came here to work as a caretaker! I came here because I chose love. I'm sorry, but I feel like I'm treated differently because of my slanted eyes and the color of my skin, because of my race. I'm not ashamed that many of my countrymen work as caretakers for the elderly in Israel. That's part of globalization.

"The question is why we shouldn't be treated like people, why we're treated as some inferior race. Just because we work in nursing care here? Is that something to be ashamed of? I can't figure it out. Because a person works as a caretaker he should be treated as if he's subhuman? Because a person has dark skin he should be paid less and treated badly? Because someone has slanted eyes he should be treated like he's from the Third World, while you're lording it over the world?"

Her husband recalls that a man recently came up to him, pointed at Robbie and asked him where he could get "one of those": "I laughed and told him: Don't think this is a caretaker who can serve you. This is a very dominant woman. Bossy even. It's not what people think. This is a woman who is a full partner in everything. And I like that. I also explained to him that I don't know how you get 'one of those,' that Robbie is far from average, that she's special, and independent. That it's not easy to find a woman like her."

The television is on in the background; Robbie never misses the news. It's important to her to learn about the reality of life in Israel. She's also reading English-language biographies of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres. When Interior Minister Eli Yishai appears onscreen, she looks pained: "I feel bad when I see him. He expresses himself in an ignorant manner. The things he says about foreign workers epitomize ignorance and racism and, if I may say so, remind me of the way the Jews were talked about before the Holocaust. I can't understand how a government minister can speak this way."

Asked how she explains the treatment she has undergone at the ministry, Robbie says: "There are two reasons for it. The first is my Philippine origins. They're not comfortable with that. The connection between an Israeli man and a Filipina woman creates problems. After a few years of repeated visits to the Interior Ministry, I can tell you that there is an anti-Filipino attitude there. The second reason, which is just as essential, is the conversion. They don't accept it. Instead of seeing the beauty in the choice that I made, in the change I made, in giving up the religion you were born with for the sake of the man you love, you're faced with a whole unpleasant array of suspicions. What did I want to achieve? Just to live as a Jewish woman with my husband. But they're trying to figure out what ulterior motive I had for getting married."

Her husband is torn between his love for the country and his deep aversion to the government's policy. So much so that he is talking about leaving for good.

"It's a terrible feeling," he says. "I don't want to leave Israel. I want to live here. I love the atmosphere in this country. This is my home, this is where I was born. And Robbie loves living here, too. She is accepted warmly by my friends, at folk dancing and at the Hebrew University. But I don't intend to extend her tourist visa again. As far as I'm concerned, let it expire and if they deport her, then I'm leaving for good."