Israeli authorities said that nine Venezuelan converts to Judaism 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.