After an “emotional” and special Knesset hearing, The Jewish Agency worked out a deal with the Israeli government that enables a group of nine Jewish Venezuelans entry into the country, representing a reversal of a decision to bar their immigration earlier in January.
The Venezuelan cohort—three families consisting of five adults and four children—was converted by a Conservative rabbinical court in 2014, but their immigration requests were denied because they were not “involved enough.” The decision by Israel’s Interior Ministry prompted an outcry, especially from the Conservative movement. Now, however, after “hammering out” a deal with the Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs, the Venezuelans will be making their way to Israel, granted they complete a second, “symbolic” conversion. According to Ha’aretz, they will need to wait nine months before they can claim citizenship.
As part of the compromise reached, the Venezuelans will undergo a “symbolic” conversion, meaning that they will not have to begin the entire process from scratch, but rather, they will have to immerse themselves in a mikveh, or ritual bath, once again and repeat a declaration saying they intend to become part of the Jewish people. It is not yet clear whether the men will be required to undergo another symbolic drawing of blood, in place of an actual circumcision.
The Jewish Agency’s executive chairman, Natan Sharansky, said in a statement that he was “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.”
The Venezuelan families, who hail from the small, rural town of Maracay, were initially denied entry to Israel due to the strictures of the Law of Return. Jewish converts wanting to make aliyah must first undergo a conversion in a “recognized Jewish community” (one that features at least one full-time rabbi and an active synagogue) and remain actively involved in Jewish life within that community. The closest community, a synagogue in Valencia, was an hour’s drive away, and did not sufficiently qualify, according to Israel’s Interior Ministry.
In addition to the Law of Return, there is also a political barrier inhibiting immigration between Venezuela and Israel. The two nations severed diplomatic ties in 2009, when then-President Hugo Chavez expelled the Israeli ambassador and his staff from Caracas following Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.
Venezuela is in the midst of an economic crisis, including a national shortage of food and medical supplies that has spurred tens of thousands of citizens to seek better lives elsewhere―Miami, Panama, Mexico, and, yes, Israel. As a result, the South American nation’s Jewish population has dwindled from 20,000 people 15 years ago to the current estimate of 6,000-9,000.
Zoe Miller is Tablet’s editorial intern. Follow her on Twitter here.