The Israeli government this week detained a family of black, Jewish-American converts from entering the country, triggering concern by Conservative movement leaders who fear the emergence of a pattern of racial and religious discrimination.
The incident occurred late Monday night at Ben Gurion Airport when Elezar Yisrael, his wife, two children, and four young grandchildren sought entry into Israel. Yisrael has apparently been an Israeli citizen for more than a year, living and working in the state since resettling from Chicago. The family were converted in Los Angeles 10 years ago through the Conservative branch of Judaism. On Monday night Yisrael was bringing his family to live with him.
But instead, the family was detained at the airport for six hours by government officials. In order to stay in the country, government agents said they had to sign an agreement that they would leave in 30 days.
“They have been detained at the airport and refused entry,” according to an urgent e-mail message sent late Monday night to Conservative rabbis around the world by Rabbi Andrew Sacks, a Conservative leader in Jerusalem.
“The Interior Ministry has no right to refuse our converts from outside Israel. They nonetheless have been doing so. This is especially so when they are of color,” Rabbi Sacks wrote.
According to Israel’s Law of Return, Jews are automatically granted citizenship. Conversions to Judaism outside of Israel whether by Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism are automatically recognized. (Presently, only Orthodox conversions are recognized inside Israel.)
Rabbi Sacks declined to discuss the case and referred calls to the movement’s attorney in Israel, Dan Evron. Evron called the incident unprecedented and astonishing. “This is absolutely extraordinary,” said Evron, who negotiated with the Interior Ministry for the family’s release into the wee hours Tuesday morning. “We don’t know a precedent for this.”
When asked if this corresponded with Israel’s Law of Return, he said no.
“It was just astonishing that an Israeli citizen would come with his family and the interior minister would say until he clarifies the family situation with the wife and children, they won’t let them in.”
Evron said in order to free the family, he signed a letter on their behalf that they understood the conditions upon which they were being let in, and that an Israeli court would decide. He said he will continue to negotiate with the Interior Ministry.
The Interior Ministry, headed by Eliyahu Suissa, a member of the Shas Party, could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the Israeli Consulate in New York said he was waiting for more information from Israel.
The detainment comes at a particularly sensitive moment between the more liberal Conservative and Reform movements and the Orthodox, who control religious life in Israel. The liberal movements are attempting to win equality in a proposed conversion institute, to be run with Orthodox participation under the auspices of the Jewish Agency and the backing of the Knesset.
Rabbi Joel Meyer, executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative branch’s rabbinical association, confirmed that Elezar Yisrael and his family were converted in 1988, by a Conservative bet din in Los Angeles.
“The entire family has been living halachically traditional lives in every way. They always dreamed of going on aliyah to Israel,” he said.
Rabbi Meyer hoped this was a case of overreaction.
“We’re optimistic this will be cleared up.”
Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary declined to comment.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive director of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism, said he believed this was a bureaucratic problem and not a premeditated plan. “I have to believe that someone in the airport must have made a bad decision.” He said the movement will continue to monitor the situation.
But this apparently is not the first incident.
Queens Rabbi Stanley Greenstein noted in an e-mail that several years ago a potential convert, a black woman, was mistreated by Israeli customs officials.
“She was subjected to intensive searches of her luggage, lengthy questioning, and even an internal physical exam. She came back to me in tears, asking if this is what she was likely to expect from Judaism.
“I don’t know if my student’s problem was the color of her skin or the flavor of her rabbi,” he wrote.