AUSTIN, Texas — Despite frequent assertions that it is a homeland for all Jews, Israel has rejected a group of would-be immigrants from Venezuela despite years of devotion to their religion.
Under the policy known as aliyah, a Hebrew word meaning “ascending,” any Jewish person may emigrate to Israel, regardless of their nation of origin. Once in Israel, new arrivals are provided with stipends and benefits to help them get on their feet. When Europe was struck by deadly anti-Semitic violence two years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged all Jews to move to Israel.
“I would like to tell all European Jews and all Jews wherever they are: Israel is the home of every Jew,” Netanyahu said after an attack on a synagogue in Copenhagen in January of 2015.
However, this policy has been selectively enforced in cases involving poor or non-white Jews.
In December, Israel’s interior ministry denied aliyah to nine converts to Judaism from Maracay, a rural town in northern Venezuela. In order to qualify for aliyah, would-be migrants must come from an established Jewish community or take extraordinary steps to show their dedication to the faith. The converts, who come from three indigenous Venezuelan families, studied for three years at a synagogue located over an hour’s drive from Maracay in hopes of qualifying.
“After a grueling six-month correspondence between the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Interior, the Venezuelans were notified two weeks ago that their Israeli immigration requests had been rejected,” noted Marcus Moraes, a reporter for the Jewish Daily Forward, on Jan. 5.
There have been numerous objections to the ruling, including by members of the conservative Orthodox Jewish community. Daniel Askenazi, an orthodox rabbi based in Colombia, was among those to speak out in support of the Venezuelans.
“It is our duty as Jews to raise our voices and demand that the State of Israel … expedite the absorption of these people,” Moraes quoted Askenazi as saying, citing Israeli media.
Rabbi Juan Mejia, who oversaw the group’s conversion, also wrote “passionate letters begging for compassion from Israeli authorities,” according to Moraes. Mejia wrote that aliyah, for them, was “matter of life and death.”
According to Jewish NGOs interviewed by The Washington Post on Jan. 1, although 22,000 Jews lived in Venezuela in the late 1990s, that number has fallen to between 6,000 and 9,000. A combination of economic instability, frosty relations between Venezuela and Israel, and widespread anti-Semitism have caused a rapid decline in the number of Jews living in Venezuela, according to Post reporter Ruth Eglash.
“Official Israeli government figures show that 111 Venezuelan Jews made ‘aliyah’ … to Israel in 2015, more than double the number who arrived in 2012,” noted Eglash.
Even supporters of Israel admit that racism influences decisions on who is allowed to move to Israel. “Sadly it is all too common that issues of race and denominational affiliation play into the decisions made by the Interior Ministry,” Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, told the Forward.
Would-be immigrants from Africa have been treated with particular suspicion over the years by the Israeli government. In 2013, it was revealed that, since the 1980s, Ethiopian Jews arriving in Israel were sometimes forced to take Depo-Provera birth control shots without proper informed consent. Other Jewish immigrants from Northern Africa were forced to undergo disinfecting sessions before entering the country, according to a December 2014 MintPress News report from Catherine Shakdam.
Rabbi Hirsh of the Neturei Karta, a Jerusalem-based Orthodox Jewish organization that promotes interfaith religious tolerance and opposes Zionism, told Shakdam that Israel has a racist and xenophobic double-standard when it comes to non-white Jews. Hirsh concluded:
“Israel’s claims that it is democratic, moral and compassionate are lies. Such claims only run skin deep and quite clearly do not apply to whoever bears a physical resemblance to the so-called abominable Arabs.”