How can I immigrate to Israel?
Immigration to Israel might be complicated for people who are not Jewish or eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return. Israel is not recognized as a country open to any sort of immigration, such as the USA, or Australia, for example, who’s modern state was established based on immigrants.
Israel is defined as the national home of the Jewish people, and therefore welcomes Jewish immigration. However, on the other hand Israel does not permit everyone to freely immigrate to it. As a law firm specializing in immigration to Israel, we often encounter questions such as: “I am not Jewish – how can I immigrate to Israel?”
Many who wish to immigrate to Israel, and even many Israeli citizens, wishing to bring their spouses, partners and relatives to the country, are not familiar with all possibilities and limitations relating to this issue. This article, by Adv. Joshua Pex, explains Israel’s immigration laws, and the immigration options available to non-Jewish people.
What does the Law of Return mean for Jewish immigration rights?
First and foremost – Israel is a Zionist state. The principles guiding the immigration policy, from the very establishment of Israel in 1948 and to this very day, are the ingathering of the exiles, and basing the State of Israel as the home of the Jewish people, open to immigration by the world Jewry.
This policy was enshrined in one of the main laws enacted following the state’s foundation, the Law of Return (1950). In 2018, the Law of Return became a central component of Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (also known as the “Nation-State Bill”).
In light of this law’s importance, it is appropriate to quote the relevant Sections which serve as the basis of most decisions to accept or deny applications to immigrate to Israel.
Section 2(b) stipulates: “An Oleh’s visa shall be granted to every Jew who has expressed his desire to settle in Israel, unless the Minister of Immigration is satisfied that the applicant – (1) is engaged in an activity directed against the Jewish people; (2) is likely to endanger public health or the security of the State; or (3) is a person with a criminal past, likely to endanger public welfare.”
Law of Return also for children and grandchildren of Jews – 1970
According to the amendment of this law made in 1970, “the rights of a Jew under this Law […] are also vested in a child and grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.”
It should be noted that no part of the Law of Return, or any other law enacted in the State of Israel, specifically stipulates that only Jews are eligible to immigrate/make aliyah in the State of Israel, and no law prohibits non-Jews from becoming settled in Israel.
However, the Knesset has enacted no laws permitting those who are not Jewish or family members related to Jews, to obtain permanent status or an Israeli citizenship other than on the basis of their relationship with an Israeli citizen/resident (nor is it expected to enact such a law in the foreseeable future).
What is the Ministry of Interior’s role in immigration applications?
Decisions concerning Aliyah, immigration, and visas to Israel are made by the Minister of Interior, who delegates authority to the officials of the Ministry of Interior – the Population and Immigration Department (Misrad Hapnim) across the country.
Almost every city in Israel has a MOI office, and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have several. The clerks of the Minister of Interior and their delegates are authorized to approve or deny entry or a visa to Israel, as stated in the Entry into Israel Law (1952).
So, who is eligible to receive an Israeli citizenship or status under the Law of Return?
Although the Law of Return is one of the State of Israel’s shortest and most important laws, many of the country’s citizens, or those wishing to immigrate to Israel, do not understand its meaning.
An aliyah applicant does not have to be Jewish. It’s enough to prove that one of your parents, or even one of your grandparents, were Jewish, in order to become eligible to make aliyah and obtain an Israeli citizenship.
In addition, the spouses of persons eligible to make aliyah and the minor children of persons eligible to make aliyah or their spouses (even if the children were born as a result of a previous relationship) are eligible to make aliyah with them and receive Israeli permanent status.
This is also true in case the Jewish parent / grandparent / spouse have passed. However, these rights have certain restrictions:
Who is not permitted to make aliyah, despite being Jewish or the relative of a Jew?
As quoted above, those who act against the Jewish people, who might pose danger to public safety, have a criminal record, or have converted to another religion, are not eligible to make aliyah. This also applies if they themselves are Jewish, or are the children / grandchildren / spouses or Jewish people or persons eligible under the Law of Return. For the sake of brevity, we will refer to these persons eligible to make aliyah as “Jews.”
The Ministry of Interior and the Border Police tend to consider support of the BDS, or organizations that are critical of Israeli government policies, as an action that poses danger to the security of the Jewish people.
For this reason, Jews who are foreign citizens and support the Palestinian struggle might find themselves being denied entry to Israel, even as visitors. We have no knowledge of many cases where BDS supporters have applied to make aliyah (maybe out of a wish to influence Israel’s policy as citizens), but it is possible that such applications would be denied by the Ministry of Interior.
The State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people, but it is not a sanctuary for the world’s Jewish criminals. Therefore, in the case of a Jewish person who was convicted of a crime, the Ministry of Interior would examine their application and check whether permitting them to make aliyah would endanger public safety.
In these cases, the officials handling the aliyah application examine the person’s level of danger to the public, i.e. a balance of the potential damage which this immigrant might pose in Israel, and the likelihood (according to the immigrant officials’ considerations) that they resume criminality after making aliyah, compared with the damage caused to the person eligible to make aliyah as a result of the application’s denial, and the economic and social damage to the Israeli public as a result of this person’s lack of contribution.
The Ministry of Interior may deny aliyah to persons ill with a dangerous and contagious disease. In practice, except for extreme cases such as an Ebola outbreak, the Ministry of Interior’s officials would rarely explicitly deny aliyah based on a person’s health.
However, immigration specialists have discovered that the applications of persons eligible to make aliyah, who are sick with a terminal illness, often suffer from undue delays. The aliyah applications of mentally ill people are also often denied without just cause.
Can a Jew still make Aliyah after converting to a non-Jewish religion?
Persons who were born Jewish (children of a Jewish mother) and converted to another religion are not eligible to make aliyah. It’s important to note that the State of Israel’s immigration authorities consider Messianic Jews (who consider themselves Jews who believe in Jesus) as converted to Christianity, and thus they are not allowed to make aliyah.
According to ruling precedent, the Ministry of Interior does not take into account the religion of persons eligible to make aliyah by force of their family relations, who were not born as Jews (or in other words, whose mother isn’t Jewish). However, based on a number of rulings issued recently, this may change in the future.
DNA testing as proof of Judaism?
Finally, it’s important to emphasize that the State of Israel does not recognize DNA tests, which confirm that the applicant has Jewish ancestry, as a basis for eligibility to make aliyah.
The proof of Judaism is based on documents such as: ketubah (Jewish marriage contract), Bar Mitzvah certificate, photos of gravestones in Jewish cemeteries, and a letter by a Jewish community’s Rabbi proving the family’s affiliation with a recognized Jewish community. As mentioned above, non-Jewish persons are only eligible to make aliyah in case one of their parents or grandparents is Jewish. (Or together with a spouse eligible to make aliyah, or parents eligible to make aliyah, in case the aliyah applicant is a minor).
Sometimes, the State of Israel might request an Israeli citizen, who is in a relationship with a non-Israeli citizen, to undergo a DNA test to prove paternity in order to be granted the right to register his children as Israeli citizens by virtue of birth, under the Citizenship Law. However, this test does not prove the child’s “Judaism,” but rather the identity of their father as an Israeli citizen.
Obtaining citizenship or status in Israel as the spouse of an Israeli citizen or resident
The spouses (whether married or in a civil union, including same-sex couples) of Israeli citizens or residents may obtain permanent status in Israel. This way of obtaining legal status in Israel is, of course, open to non-Jews, who, at the end of the process, are eligible to receive an Israeli citizenship.
Spouses from the “territories” (the Gaza Strip and/or Palestinian Judea and Samaria) are not eligible to receive a citizenship or status in Israel under this procedure, only a temporary entry permit.
However, there are a number of barriers for those wishing to immigrate to Israel through a relationship with an Israeli person. The goal of the gradual procedure for obtaining status in Israel is preventing fictitious marriages – a situation in which the spouses (or one of them) are only in that relationship for the purpose of obtaining status, and will break up immediately after obtaining citizenship or permanent residency.
The gradual procedure takes a number of years (at least 5 to 7 years), during which the Ministry of Interior’s officials examine the spouses’ lives and interview them to check the “honesty” of their relationship.
In addition – no institutions in the State of Israel allow inter-faith marriages. People who have met in Israel and wish to live together as a married couple rather than being in a civil union must travel abroad in order to legally marry. Civil marriages conducted outside of Israel are later registered in the Israeli Ministry of Interior, population department.
Finally, in case they were married abroad, the Ministry of Interior would ask the foreign spouse to wait abroad until the Israeli spouse invites them to Israel by applying to the Ministry of Interior. Many spouses who live outside Israel and arrive there on a visit are denied entry based on the fear that they would try to settle in Israel while skipping the invitation process.
What about obtaining an Israeli citizenship or status following conversion to Judaism?
Persons who have converted to Judaism might be eligible under the Law of Return. However, naturally, the State of Israel doesn’t want just anyone to be able to obtain a certificate from any Rabbi in the world, confirming that they converted into Judaism, only so they could immigrate to Israel.
For this reason, there exists a regular procedure in order to make sure that the convert has converted out of sincere love for the Jewish religion, culture, and tradition. The convert must live and participate in a Jewish community for about one year, to study and memorize sacred texts, and finally go through the conversion at a recognized Bet Din and obtain documents and letters of recommendation from the community leaders.
Unofficially, recommendations from Orthodox Jewish communities are given priority above recommendations from reform or conservative communities.
Can you obtain Israeli residence by investment?
Thanks to the B-5 visa, American citizens only may purchase 50% of an Israeli business, or more, and stay in Israel in order to manage it, as long as it is active. The business must significantly contribute to the Israeli economy, and employ a number of Israeli citizens.
In addition to Israeli employees, such business can also employ foreign workers and managers who are United States citizens, under special conditions. The family of the investor / foreign worker may also live and work in Israel based on accompanying visas.
As opposed to the general rule concerning holders of investment visas in other countries, the investor is not eligible to obtain a residency / citizenship status after a number of years of living in Israel.
Obtaining a citizenship or status in Israel as parents of an Israeli
There are a few cases in which parents of Israelis, who are not eligible to make Aliyah, can obtain permanent status in Israel. The child of parents who are not eligible to make aliyah, who serves in the IDF, is eligible to bring their parents to Israel based on the lone soldier procedure.
Permanent residents and Israeli citizens with one deceased parent may bring their other parent to Israel as an elderly lone parent, even if this parent is not eligible to make aliyah.
Humanitarian visa to Israel – Temporary residence
In addition, the Ministry of Interior’s Humanitarian Committee may decide to grant permanent status in Israel in special cases, to the foreign citizen parents of Israeli citizen minors, when they themselves are not eligible to settle in Israel, but the minors’ best interest is to stay in Israel in the parent’s custody (usually the mother).
Also, those who are not Jewish, but risked their lives to save jews during the holocaust and their children are eligible for legal status in Israel, as “righteous among the nations”, who are recognized by Yad Vashem.
Refugees – obtaining status in Israel for asylum seekers
Israel has signed the Refugee Conventions of 1951 and 1967. The first generations of the state’s founders remembered the state of European Jews during WW2, who traveled the world as refugees, without any country agreeing to take them in.
Even though in its first years, the State of Israel was not a popular destination for refugees, a few hundred Vietnamese Refugees were accepted here, as well as several refugees from other countries.
These refugees were not granted a citizenship, but some of them and their children are still in Israel to this day – many have left seeking opportunities elsewhere, but in any case, they were not expelled.
Currently, since Israel serves as a destination for many refugees from post-Soviet states and from Africa, the zeitgeist of both the public and the legislator has changed significantly.
Following the stereotyping of refugees as dangerous and as posing a risk to public safety in Israel, the handling process of asylum seekers in Israel focused on a short interview and the quick expulsion of asylum seekers on the one hand, while on the other hand leaving asylum seekers, who might be eligible to be granted refugee status, without recourse or status.
However, it should be noted that many asylum seekers in Israel do not comply with the definition of refugee under the relevant laws and conventions, since they are not persecuted in their country of origin for reasons of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Is there a procedure for foreign workers to obtain an Israeli citizenship or status?
The goal of legislation on the issue of expert foreign worker visas is for the foreign worker to stay in Israel no more than 5 years. A foreign worker visa cannot be extended for an unlimited period.
For the Israeli immigration authorities, ideally, the foreign worker should only come into Israel if no Israeli worker can perform such work. The purpose of hiring the foreign worker is that they perform their duties, pass their knowledge on to Israeli workers, and return to their country of origin.
Of course, the economic reality isn’t ideal. Expert foreign workers in the high-tech field are often required to stay in Israel for a number of years, and they may bring their family with them. Geriatric caretakers can extend their visa for many years, based on the understanding that the patient would often rather trust the same nurse for the rest of their life.
Notwithstanding the above, as opposed to the general rule in countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom, foreign citizens who work in Israel are not eligible to receive a citizenship or status in Israel after a number of years.
This is regardless of their behavior or the nature of their work. In case they are not eligible to obtain status in Israel under one of the above possibilities, they would be required to leave, even if they had lived in Israel legally for a long time, and consider Israel as their new homeland.
It should be noted that in exceptional cases, foreign workers who have resided in Israel for a long time with their family, have assimilated into Israeli society, and whose work is particularly important to the local economy, may be eligible to submit an application for temporary residency status (A-5 visa).
What if I am not eligible to obtain an Israeli citizenship or status according to the above?
What about people who are not Jewish or the family members of Jews? People who don’t wish to start a relationship with an Israeli person, or convert their religion? People who are not eligible to receive refugee status, and are unable to obtain any job offer from an Israeli employer? Do these people have no way to live in the Holy Land, even if they love Israel and want to move there?
The short answer is, no. Israel is not an immigrant nation open to all of the world’s citizens. The purpose of Israeli immigration legislation is to allow world Jewry and their families to make aliyah. Just as Israel is not expected to become a state of all its citizens in the foreseeable future, it is also not expected that the main legislation, regulating immigration to Israel, would change.
However, foreign citizens who wish to stay in Israel and get to know its population, culture, history, geography, and the broad variety that the State of Israel, the Holy Land, has to offer, can consider arriving on a tourist visit or sign up as volunteers at an institution recognized by the Ministry of Social Services, or as foreign students at an official Israeli academic institution.
Contact us is you wish to immigrate to Israel
Our law firm specializes in all types of immigration, aliyah, the obtainment of citizenship or status in Israel. If you or your friends are eligible to arrive in Israel based on one of the above options, we would be happy to provide you with information or legal assistance with the Ministry of Interior. You are invited to schedule a meeting at our Jerusalem or Tel Aviv offices and receive legal assistance.