Israel allows Venezuelan Jewish converts to immigrate

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli authorities said Tuesday that nine Venezuelan Jewish converts will be allowed to move to Israel in light of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, reversing an earlier decision to keep them out.

Israel's Interior Ministry had initially rejected the nine for immigration, saying they did not meet criteria to ensure they are committed Jews and not just seeking a better life in Israel.

According to an official in Israel familiar with the case, there was evidence suggesting some of the applicants converted to Judaism in order to take advantage of Israeli social benefits, including health insurance. The official insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the converts' personal status.

But advocates argued that the converts, from the Venezuelan city of Maracay, are in mortal danger amid food shortages and violence in Venezuela. They claim the Interior Ministry, headed by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish minister, discriminated against the converts because the Conservative Movement, a liberal stream of Judaism, had converted them.

Liberal Israeli lawmakers subsequently called on immigration officials to come up with a "creative solution" to save the Jewish converts from danger in Venezuela.

Following a stormy parliamentary committee hearing Tuesday — in which representatives of the Conservative Movement and liberal lawmakers sparred with officials from the Interior Ministry — immigration officials said the nine could move to Israel if they underwent a repeat Conservative conversion and joined an "established religious community" once in Israel.

The Jewish Agency, a nonprofit that works closely with the Israeli government to serve Jewish communities worldwide, said it had proposed the compromise.

"I am pleased that our compromise was accepted by all parties at today's Knesset hearing on the matter and that the individuals in question will be able to come to Israel without delay," said Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency's chairman.

"Finally there is justice," said Franklin Perez, leader of the Venezuelan community, which began gathering in the members' homes to study Jewish texts about five years ago. "The emotion I feel is only comparable to when my children were born."

Perez said he was stunned to learn about Israel's new decision from a journalist, but that he is now looking forward to realizing his dream to move to Israel.

Israeli opposition lawmaker Yael Cohen Paran, who fought on the behalf of the Venezuelans, praised the decision.

"This is saving them. It is amazing," she said, tears in her eyes. But she and other advocates said the repeated conversion was "legal fiction" and called on officials to be more accepting of Jewish converts.

Reform and Conservative converts are eligible to apply for immigration to Israel, but officials said the Venezuelan converts did not meet the criteria for citizenship because they were unaffiliated with a Jewish community during their conversion and for a period of time after it. The closest Jewish community to the converts is two hours away, in Caracas.

Rabbi Andrew Sacks of the Conservative Movement in Israel said the converts took regular Skype lessons from a rabbi in Oklahoma, and were unable to join an established Jewish community during their conversion studies. Only some time after the conversion did they find a Jewish community in Caracas which accepted them, he said.

Rabbi Juan Mejia, the Oklahoma-based rabbi who oversaw their conversion, said he was "very grateful to God for all the indefatigable efforts of the Conservative movement in Israel" in rescuing the converts from harm and bringing them to the Jewish national home.

"It is troubling, however, that in order to do so they are still required to jump through hoops not required of anyone else," he said.

The Venezuelan converts are expected to undergo a repeat conversion and move to Israel in the coming weeks. The Jewish Agency, a nonprofit organization that works closely with the Israeli government on immigration, said it will pay for their flights and housing, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity, will provide them with additional assistance during their first months in Israel.

The immigration officials said the Venezuelan converts will be allowed to stay as temporary residents in Israel, and are eligible for citizenship and government social benefits after being a part of an established religious community in Israel for at least nine months.


Associated Press Daniel Estrin reported this story in Jerusalem and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Caracas, Venezuela.