Peruvian Converts Denied Permission to Immigrate to Israel

Jewish Agency and Conservative movement leaders decry the Ministry of Interior's continuing refusal to allow 'the Jews of the Amazon' to join relatives in Israel.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Several hundred mixed-race Peruvian converts, also known as the “Jews of the Amazon,” are not being granted permission to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, despite meeting all the requirements for eligibility, Jewish Agency and Conservative Movement leaders charge.

Jack Corcos, director of the Jewish Agency unit that approves eligibility for immigration, told a gathering in Jerusalem today that he did not understand the Ministry of Interior’s ongoing refusal to approve the requests by the converts to move to Israel. “There is no reason they should be waiting any longer,” he said during a session held by the Jewish Agency Board of Governors. “The whole story is very odd.”

Asked why the Ministry of Interior was holding up approval of these immigration requests, spokeswoman Sabine Haddad responded: “A discussion on the issue was held last week with the Jewish Agency and relevant parties from the Population and Immigration Authority. The issue awaits a decision of the senior echelon.”

The group of 284 Peruvians, who come from Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest, were converted to Judaism by a Conservative rabbinical court in August 2011 after they had engaged in Jewish studies for five years. They are the descendants of Moroccan Jews who arrived in the Amazon in the 19th century seeking employment in the rubber industry, and who married and had children with local women.

If the Ministry of Interior ultimately decides to reject their citizenship applications, senior officials in the Jewish organizational world warn it could seriously undermine relations between the government of Israel and the world Conservative Movement.  “I can tell you that the Conservative movement leadership will not take this in stride,” said one such official. “As far as they see it, it’s an act of contempt – a total disregard for the validity of their conversions.”

Yizhar Hess, the director of the Conservative movement in Israel, who participated in this morning’s session, told Haaretz: “Hundreds of Jews are waiting today in Peru to immigrate to Israel, and their only sin is that they are Conservative.”

Most, though not all, of the Peruvian converts have declared their intention to move to Israel. The plan was for them to come gradually in several separate groups.

Hundreds of members of the Iquitos community have already immigrated to Israel in two separate waves -- one in 2001 and the other in 2005. Unlike the current group, many of whose members are their relatives, they encountered no problems whatsoever in the process. Most of them live today in the city of Ramle, which is prepared to absorb the remaining members of the community. The Ministry of Interior spokeswoman did not respond to a question about why the applications of the current group were being held up, while those of the previous groups were approved promptly.

Under current immigration procedures, individuals who are not born Jewish are expected to spend nine months as active members of their local Jewish communities after they have completed the conversion process – regardless of what type of conversion they have undergone -- before moving to Israel. During this time, their applications are reviewed by the Ministry of Interior. The Ministry of Interior, which does not have its own emissaries abroad, typically relies on recommendations from the Jewish Agency about the validity of conversions performed abroad.

The Jewish Agency last year notified the Ministry of Interior that it had determined the conversions performed on this group of 284 Peruvians fulfilled all the necessary criteria to make them eligible for immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return.

Based on this recommendation, they should have been able to immigrate to Israel in May 2012.

But, as Corcos reported to the Jewish Agency gathering this morning, Interior Ministry officials suddenly informed him that bringing this large a group to Israel required a special cabinet decision. When Jewish Agency officials consulted with their legal advisers, they were told that a cabinet decision is only required when the group members have not yet been converted, but rather, plan to convert in Israel, as in the case of the Falashmura from Ethiopia.

Haddad did not respond to a question about why Ministry of Interior officials insist that a cabinet decision is required for the Peruvian group to come to Israel, when Jewish Agency legal advisers have determined otherwise.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, was invited by Jewish Agency officials to participate in last week’s meeting with Ministry of Interior representatives because of his connections to the rabbis who performed the conversions in Peru. But as he sat down, he was asked by the Interior Ministry officials to leave the room, prompting an angry response from the Jewish Agency officials present. As Sacks stormed out of the room, he charged that the case of the Peruvians was “another example of racism in the Interior Ministry.”

Following the meeting, Sacks told Haaretz that based on his experience with converts, “when they are people of color, they are guaranteed to run into a roadblock and obfuscation in their attempts to make aliyah.” The ministry spokeswoman also declined to respond to this accusation.  

The Amazon River near Iquitos city where 284 Peruvian converts, descendants of Moroccan Jews, are waiting to immigrate to Israel. Credit: Reuters

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