Cookie Schwaeber-Issan

Going To An Extreme To Gain Citizenship

Sometimes what seems to be a losing battle and the inability to move the needle on matters which profoundly affect your very life, may demand extreme measures.  Apparently, that was the thought of African American born convert to Orthodox Judaism, David Ben Moshe who, for the last four years, has battled to gain Israeli citizenship for which he was repeatedly denied.

Despite being married to an Israeli citizen and fathering what are considered, by Israeli law, to be Jewish children, Ben Moshe was turned down for the reason of having previously been convicted and incarcerated of a crime during the time he lived in the United States.

While it’s true that there is a clause within the Law of Return stating that those with a criminal past could endanger public welfare, no one seemed to be able to point out just how this man, who claims to have turned his life around, would fall into that category of menacing Israel’s population.

With nothing to lose and nothing to live for, absent his Israeli citizenship, Ben Moshe declared that he would embark on a hunger strike until the government of Israel would confer citizenship on him.

It seems to have been an extreme step, for sure, but certainly not unprecedented.  Throughout history, people have been known to resort to extreme measures when they felt that life was no longer worth living without the realization of their particular ideal which they were forced to live without.  American patriot, Patrick Henry coined the phrase, “Give me liberty or give me death.”  For him, the thought of life without freedom was worthless.  Apparently, Ben Moshe also felt that life without Israeli citizenship was no longer worth living.

But how does a husband and father sink to such a depth of despondency where being willing to die for citizenship is a price worth paying?

For anyone who has read a number of recent articles concerning the practices within the Interior Ministry of Israel, it should not come as a surprise that the only way to catch their attention is to go for broke.

It’s sad to say, but Ben Moshe’s case was not unique.  There are a plethora of individuals who can claim Jewish parents or grandparents, making them eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return but who, nonetheless, have either been denied or whose application is being slow-walked, over the course of years, while they suffer and languish living here with no status or benefits.  They are, at best, granted a short-term visa which must continually be renewed, but they are not guaranteed anything, including the ability to return if they choose to leave for a small vacation.  In short, they are living as pawns under house arrest in a country which they chose to make their home but which, for a variety of reasons, is unwilling to recognize them as eligible candidates for citizenship.

What are the reasons given? Some are connected to their own sense of the Jewish faith and how they personally believe.  It does not mean they have converted, but they are told that  a different way of looking at matters of faith results in the disqualification of their bloodline through birth?

Those who have a stranglehold on the Interior Ministry might be well served to take a good look at the Law of Return which in no way requires the children or grandchildren of Jews to abide by one particular expression of the Jewish religion.  If so, how would other branches of Judaism, such as Conservative and Reformed fare?  But even those branches are subject to a lesser status. One example is marriage.  If you want to be married in Israel, it can only be done legally by an Orthodox rabbi, and although that position has been and continues to be fought, the status quo remains untouched.

Issues of faith are only one deterrent for obtaining citizenship, because if any of the clerks is the least bit suspect, their stamp of approval will never make it on to your application.  It will, instead, be slow-walked with endless demands to produce non-essential records of obscure family members despite their already having produced adequate parental or grandparental documentation irrefutably showing their Jewish ties.  The system is one which stacks the deck against any Jews who are deemed unworthy, unacceptable or simply not good enough to live in the land of their ancestors.

However, in this particular case, what the Interior Ministry never banked on was one lone man whose life felt irretrievably empty and meaningless without gaining the acceptance of all he’d worked towards – being part and parcel of the House of Israel.  His willingness to put an end to it all is something that should loudly shout at them and certainly all of us.

We need to confront the sad truth that we may have actually lost our way.  When did we start looking at ourselves as some exclusive club which picks and chooses who gains entrance into the coveted land which, from the start, was established, to be a refuge and permanent dwelling for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

There is nothing merciful about a small group of over-zealous bureaucrats who have chosen to override Israeli law, giving it an erroneous interpretation and forbidding certain Jews from living in their homeland.

To the contrary, given our present global environment, where one can innocently turn on the television only to hear that three hostages are being held in a Texas synagogue by the brother of an incarcerated female Jihadi demands that Israel rethink her position on whether or not this country is going to be prepared to receive masses of Diaspora Jews in all shapes, sizes and persuasions or whether they will be turned away at her borders, left to find a host country that will agree to temporarily protect them.

As someone who has observed this dysfunctional system, I have contacted Interior Ministry head, Ayelet Shaked by writing an open letter blog, asking her to recognize that the Jewish people are diverse in their opinions and expression of faith but, nonetheless, deserving of entrance to a country which was ostensibly created for days like this.

I have also contacted a number of Knesset members, some whom have been sympathetic and others who haven’t.  Either way, nothing has changed, because, in order for that to happen, we must urgently confront our “mission statement” and see where and when we went rogue.

Having worked in the field of education for over 25 years has shown me that most of today’s students have a very limited and shallow understanding of how and why this country was established.  Few have no idea as to the tremendous sacrifices many of the early pioneers made as they came with a dream but, in the end, lost their lives to the malaria-filled swamps  they cleared out.  They have little or no knowledge of the many miracles which took place, causing us to acknowledge that Almighty G-d was behind the resurrection of this land.

While they may have studied about the many wars which have taken place, they very likely do not possess the substance needed to comprehend the great odds that were stacked against us at every turn.

Without those basic principles and foundational convictions of where we came from and what we have overcome to get to where we are today, we are headed for another course – one which has forgotten its raison d’etre and purpose.  We will have become as a rudderless boat – floating towards no particular destination.

I am grateful to David Ben Moshe who was willing to pay a stiff price towards the goal of not only obtaining his citizenship, which has been assured will be his in another year, but for reminding us who we are meant to be and what we owe all of our Jewish people – a home where they will be safe!

About the Author
A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.
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