Malaysian Convert Denied Citizenship Since He Was Born in 'Enemy State'

State refused to allow a Malaysian-born American citizen to immigrate to Israel with his wife, an Israeli citizen who was living overseas.

The Interior Ministry has refused to allow a Malaysian-born American citizen to immigrate to Israel with his wife, an Israeli citizen who was living overseas, in what appears to be a blatant contravention of the Law of Return.

The ministry refused the would-be immigrant for having been born in an "enemy state," although the Jewish Agency recommended accepting him as an immigrant.

"I'm being made to feel like an outlaw," says Syloke Soong, a computer programmer who converted to Judaism in 2001. Soong was forced to enter Israel as a tourist and cannot set up a business here or work, as he had planned to do.

Soong was born to a Christian family in Kuala Lumpur. He left Malaysia for Singapore at the age of 19, gave up his Malaysian citizenship and has not been there for 15 years.

In 2000, Soong moved to the United States, where he joined a Reform Jewish community in Maine. A year later he converted to Judaism and in 2003 he received American citizenship. That year he married Mejah, a psychiatrist who left Israel when she was 5. In 2004, Soong visited Israel on a community trip and was so excited that the community rabbi suggested leaving him here.

In February 2006, the couple applied to immigrate to Israel. Mejah's request was accepted but Soong's was rejected, as was his appeal. The Jewish Agency told him the Interior Ministry rejected his application because he had been born in an enemy state.

Last October, the couple got tired of waiting. Mejah came to Israel and requested that her husband be recognized as a new immigrant. Soong joined her at the beginning of 2008 - but as a tourist. "The whole process has been a disappointment," he says. His tourist status does not permit him to work or get health insurance.

Soong may join the graded naturalization program as an Israeli's partner - an exhausting process that takes at least four and a half years.

"It's important for us both that he is recognized as a Jew and as an immigrant," says Mejah.

"I understand that they need to be careful about who they let in, but this is ridiculous. He has all the necessary paperwork and we could get the entire Jewish community in Maine to speak on his behalf," she says.

According to Soong, "I knew that I wanted to be Jewish since I was 12. I have always felt a yearning to become a Jew, and not being recognized here is very frustrating."

At the beginning of March, attorney Reut Michaeli of the Israel Religious Action Center asked Mazal Cohen, the Interior Ministry's director of visas to non-citizens, to have Soong issued Israeli citizenship and immigrant status.

"The Law of Return gives every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel. One cannot deprive a person of his right merely because he was born in one country or another," she wrote.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said that "place of birth is not in itself a reason to refuse his application for status in Israel. Every request is examined in and of itself." She said the Soongs applied for immigrant status for Syloke on December 17, 2007. Some of the documents the Soongs submitted were unverified, so their request could not be processed. So Haddad says she could not understand the couple's complaints that their request was "not handled" or "refused."

In her comment, however, Haddad does not mention the couple's 2006 request.

The Jewish Agency said, "The agency recommended approving Soong's request to become an immigrant, but the Interior Ministry is authorized to make the final decision."

Haaretz asked the Interior Ministry what its rejection in 2006 was based on, but the ministry declined to comment further.