Obtaining citizenship in Israel – how can one make the Holy Land their home?
Obtaining citizenship in Israel, or “just” permanent residence in the Holy land, is complicated for anyone who is not Jewish or entitled to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, and is not a nation founded on free immigration from all corners of the world. As a law firm specializing in immigration and entry into Israel, we are often asked “I’m not Jewish – how can I immigrate to Israel”? Many prospective immigrants, as well as Israeli citizens who want to bring friends, spouses and relatives to Israel on a permanent basis, are not familiar with the legal intricacies involved. This article by Attorney Joshua Pex will explain the Israeli laws governing immigration and Aliyah, as well as the possibilities of immigration open to non-Jews.
The Law of Return is the main law which regulates immigration into Israel
First of all, Israel is a Zionist state. The guiding principles of Israel’s immigration policy, from 1948 until present day, are the repatriation of the Jewish diaspora and the establishment of the State of Israel as the home of the Jewish people, which is open to the immigration of world Jewry. This policy was anchored in one of the principal laws enacted after the establishment of the state, the Law of Return (1950). In 2018, the Law of Return was established as a central component of the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (known as the “Nationality Bill”). Those who are eligible for Aliyah (immigration to Israel) based on the Law of Return are referred to as Olim.
In view of the importance of the law, it is worth quoting the relevant clauses on which most decisions to accept or reject requests to immigrate to Israel are based. Article 2 (b) states: “An oleh’s [immigrant’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; or
- (2) Is likely to endanger public health or the security of the State.
- (3) Is a person with a criminal past, likely to endanger public welfare.”
According to the 1970 amendment, “The rights of a Jew under this Law … are also vested in a child and a 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.”
Aliyah for those non-related to Jews / Israelis?
It is important to note that there is nothing in the Law of Return, or any other Israeli law, which explicitly states that only Jews will be eligible for immigration / Aliyah to Israel or that non-Jews are not entitled to settle in Israel. However, the Knesset has not enacted (and is not expected to enact in the foreseeable future) any law allowing foreign citizens, who are neither Jewish nor related to a Jewish person, to obtain a permanent legal status in Israel other than on the basis of a relationship with a citizen / resident of Israel.
The Ministry of the Interior is the government authority responsible for regulating immigration to Israel
All decisions regarding immigration to Israel, Aliyah, obtaining citizenship in Israel and the issuing of visas for entry into Israel are made by the Minister of the Interior. The Minister delegates his authority to ministry officials in Population and Immigration Authority branches throughout Israel. The authority of the Minister of the Interior and his appointees to allow or refuse entry into Israel is established in the Entry into Israel Law (1952).
Who is entitled to receive citizenship or legal status in Israel under the Law of Return?
Although the Law of Return is one of the most important laws established in the State of Israel, many citizens of Israel or aspiring immigrants do not understand what the law states.
An applicant for Aliyah does not have to be Jewish. It is enough to prove that one of your parents or grandparents was a Jew in order to be eligible for Aliyah and obtaining citizenship in Israel. In addition, the family of a person of Jewish descent – the spouses of eligible immigrants, and the minor children of those entitled to aliyah or their spouse (even if the children were born as a result of a previous relationship) – are entitled to immigrate to Israel and receive permanent legal status. This is true even if the eligible parent / grandparent / spouse is deceased. However, there are certain limitations to these rights:
Who is not permitted to immigrate, despite being Jewish or being related to a Jew?
As noted above, those who act against the Jewish people, are liable to endanger public safety, have a criminal history, or had converted to another religion – are not entitled to immigrate to Israel. This is true even if they themselves are Jewish, or children / grandchildren / spouses of Jews or of eligible immigrants. For the sake of brevity, we refer to the list above as “Jews”.
The Israeli Ministry of Interior and Border Control tend to consider support for BDS or other organizations criticizing Israeli government and military policies as an act that harms the security of the Jewish people. As a result, Jews who support the Palestinian struggle may find themselves refused entry into Israel. We are not familiar with many Aliyah requests from BDS supporters (possibly due to a desire to influence policy after obtaining citizenship in Israel), but such requests may be rejected by the Ministry of Interior.
Applicants with prior convictions / posing a danger to the public safety
Israel is the state of the Jewish people, but it does not serve as a refuge for the criminals of the world just because they happen to be Jewish. Therefore, if an applicant has been convicted of criminal offenses, the MoI will examine their application and see whether their immigration to Israel will pose a danger to public safety. In these cases, the officials consider the balance of public safety and the applicant’s “danger level”. On the one hand is considered the possible damage that the immigrant is liable to cause to the Israeli public upon immigration, given the estimated likelihood that he will return to commit crimes. On the other hand is the damage caused to the eligible Olim due to their immigration application being denied, and to Israeli society due to missing out on the immigrant’s contributions.
Applicants with health issues
The Ministry of the Interior may refuse permission to immigrate to a person with a dangerous and contagious disease. In practice, excepting such extreme cases as an Ebola outbreak, MoI officials will rarely explicitly refuse to approve an immigration application based on the applicant’s health. However, immigration experts have noted that the immigration requests of eligible Olim with a terminal or chronic illness, or mental issues, often encounter inexplicable delays.
Anyone who was born as a Jew and converted to another religion has no right to immigrate to Israel according to Israeli Supreme Court rulings. It should be emphasized that from the point of view of the immigration authorities and the State of Israel, Messianic Jews, who consider themselves Jews who believe in Jesus, have converted to Christianity and are not eligible for aliyah. According to legal precedents and a long tradition established during previous immigration waves, the Ministry of Interior is not concerned about the religious affiliation of those entitled to aliyah due to family ties who were not born as Jews (in other words, any immigrants whose mother is not Jewish). However, based on a number of recent verdicts regarding Ministry of Interior denials of immigration requests, this may change in the future.
Aliyah based on DNA tests
Finally, it is important to emphasize that the State of Israel does not recognize DNA tests that confirm that the applicant has Jewish roots as a basis for aliyah eligibility. Proof that the applicant has a Jewish parent or grandparent is based on documents. These documents may include a Ketubah (religious marriage certificate), Bar Mitzvah certificate, photographs of gravestones in Jewish cemeteries, or a letter from a rabbi of a recognized Jewish community stating that the family belongs to said community. As stated above, a non-Jew is entitled to immigrate to Israel only in the event that one of their parents or grandparents is Jewish (or with a spouse entitled to aliyah / eligible parents if the applicant is a minor).
The State of Israel occasionally requests that an Israeli citizen who has a child with a non-Israeli citizen undergo a DNA test that will prove the paternity of the shared child. Passing this test allows the couple to register their children as an Israeli citizen by birth, obtaining citizenship in Israel according to the Nationality Law. This test is undertaken not to demonstrate the “Jewishness” of the child, but rather to prove that they are in fact the child of an Israeli citizen.
Obtaining citizenship in Israel or permanent status as a spouse of an Israeli citizen or resident:
Spouses of Israeli citizens or residents can obtain permanent status in Israel. This way of obtaining legal status in Israel is open to non-Jews, who are eligible for obtaining citizenship in Israel at the end of a “gradual process”. This process usually lasts between 5 and 7 years. The same procedure also applies to same-sex couples, and partners living together in a common law marriage, without undergoing an official ceremony. However, this path is barred to Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip and / or the West Bank who marry Israelis.
There are a number of obstacles to those who wish to move to Israel based on a relationship with an Israeli citizen/resident. The purpose of the gradual procedure for obtaining a status in Israel and ultimately for obtaining citizenship in Israel is to prevent fictitious marriages – a situation in which the couple (or one of them) is in the relationship only for the purpose of obtaining citizenship in Israel, and will separate immediately upon receiving legal status from the immigration authorities. The gradual procedure takes at least 5 to 7 years, during which the Interior Ministry officials interview the couple once a year and examine their lives in order to determine the “sincerity” of their relationship.
Recognition of marriage performed abroad
In addition; the State of Israel has no institution that can perform an interfaith marriage ceremony. Spouses of different religions who have met in Israel and want to live together as a married couple (rather than as common-law spouses) are forced to travel abroad in order to marry.
If you are married abroad, the Ministry of the Interior will request that the foreign spouse remain abroad until the Israeli spouse invites them to Israel based on the appropriate MoI procedure. Many spouses who live outside of Israel and come to visit their Israeli spouse are refused entry due to suspicion that they are trying to settle in Israel while skipping the invitation process.
Obtaining Citizenship in Israel as a Permanent Resident
Israel has a sizeable population of residents (“Toshavim”) who are not citizens of Israel. Most are members of minority populations whose parents or grandparents refused to accept Israeli citizenship after 1948 or 1967. A large population of such “refuseniks” can be found in East Jerusalem. Palestinians residing in the West Bank area or Gaza are not Israeli residents.
Another population of permanent residents consists of foreign citizens who would be required to give up their citizenship if they became citizens of Israel. Foreign spouses of Israeli citizens will sometimes retain the status of permanent resident and not apply for a citizenship.
Residents and Citizens have many of the same rights, but a permanent resident who resides outside Israel for a number of years may have their residence cancelled.
What about obtaining citizenship in Israel after conversion to Judaism?
Converts to Judaism may be entitled to immigration to Israel, depending on the circumstances. The State of Israel does not want to host an influx of “converts” who received a certificate of conversion from a random rabbi specifically for the purpose of immigration. Therefore, an established procedure was designed to ensure that the applicant converted to Judaism out of sincere love for the Jewish religion, culture, and traditions. The Giyur must take place within a framework of a recognized Jewish community. The convert must live among the community for at least a year, study and memorize the holy books, and finally receive documents and letters of recommendation from the community leaders. Unofficially, the recommendation of Orthodox communities is more valued than a recommendation from Reform or Conservative communities.
Status in Israel based on investment
Thanks to the B-5 visa, US citizens can invest in an Israeli business and live in Israel while they manage it. The investment requires acquiring at least 50% of a business that employs Israeli citizens and significantly contributes to the economy. Accompanying visas allow ׂ(US citizen) foreign managers / workers and their families to also reside in Israel.
Unlike similar investment programs elsewhere, the B-5 visa does not provide a path to permanent resident / citizen status for the investor.
Receiving citizenship in Israel or permanent residence due to exceptional circumstances
There are few cases wherein those not eligible for aliyah based on the law of return may receive permanent status in Israel. A soldier serving in the IDF is entitled to bring their parents to Israel on the basis of the lone soldier procedure, even if their parents are not eligible for Aliyah. Israeli residents and citizens can bring a widowed or divorced elderly parent to Israel. The Ministry of the Interior may decide to grant permanent status in Israel to the foreign citizen parents of minors who are Israeli citizens, for the child’s benefit – even if the parent would not normally be entitled to settle in Israel.
Asylum seekers and status in Israel under the International Refugee Convention
Israel is a signatory to the UN conventions regarding refugees of 1951 and the protocol of 1967. The first generations of Israeli leaders still remembered the Jews of Europe wandering the world as refugees, refused entry at every port. Although Israel was not a popular destination for asylum seekers in the first years of its existence, poor and militarily besieged as it was, it did absorb a number of refugees over those years, including several hundred “boat people” from Vietnam. These refugees did not receive citizenship, but some of them and their children are still permanent residents of Israel.
As Israel has recently become a destination for many asylum seekers from the former Soviet Union and Africa, the mood of the general public and the legislature has undergone a significant change. Following the branding of refugees as a foreign body endangering public safety in Israel, the process of handling asylum seekers in Israel focused on short questioning and rapid expulsion on the one hand, and leaving asylum seekers who may be genuinely eligible for refugee status without due processing and at an indeterminate legal status on the other hand.
However, it should be noted that many asylum seekers in Israel are not in fact eligible for refugee status based the international laws and conventions on the subject, since they are not persecuted in their country of origin due to “reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
Is there a procedure for obtaining citizenship in Israel for foreign workers?
The purpose of legislation regulating work visas in Israel for foreign citizens is to ensure that the foreign workers stay in Israel as briefly as possible. A foreign worker visa cannot be extended indefinitely. As far as Israeli immigration authorities as concerned, foreign experts should only come to Israel to do work that no Israeli is capable of performing. The Israeli immigration authorities would want foreign workers to perform their task, transfer their knowledge to Israeli colleagues and return to their country of origin.
Of course, economic reality is not necessarily ideal. Foreign experts in the hi-tech fields are often required to stay in Israel for several years and are allowed to bring their family members with them. Professional caregivers can extend their visa for many years, since it may be to the patient’s benefit to rely on the same caregiver for the rest of their life.
Regardless of the above, most foreign workers with an Israeli work visa cannot obtain a permanent legal status in Israel, regardless of their exemplary behavior or the nature of their work. If they do not qualify for Israeli citizenship based on the other possibilities outlined in this article, they will be required to leave even if they have legally resided in Israel for a long time and consider it to be their new homeland.
Only in few exceptional cases it is possible for foreign workers, who have been in Israel for a long time along with their families and assimilated into Israeli society, and whose work is especially important to the local economy, to apply for temporary residency status (A / 5 visa).
What if I am not entitled to obtain citizenship in Israel based on any of the paths described above?
What about those who are neither Jewish nor related to a Jewish person? Those who do not want to start a relationship with an Israeli or convert to Judaism? Who are not eligible for refugee status, and cannot get a job offer from an employer in Israel? Does such a person have no possibility of living in the Holy Land, even if they love Israel and want to move here?
In short: no. Israel is not an immigration country open to all citizens of the world. The purpose of the legislation on immigration to Israel is to allow for the repatriation for the world’s Jewry and their families. Just as it is unlikely that Israel will soon become a state of all its citizens, it is also not expected that the main legislation regulating immigration will change in the near future.
However, foreign citizens who want to come to Israel and get to know the diverse people, culture, history, and geography that the Holy Land has to offer, may consider visiting Israel as tourists, volunteering at an institution recognized by the Ministry of Social Affairs or as receiving a foreign student visa while studying at an official academic institution in Israel.
Our law firm specializes in the many paths to Aliyah, immigration, residence or obtaining citizenship in Israel. If you or your friends are entitled to come to Israel on the basis of one of the above options, we will be happy to provide information or legal assistance with the Ministry of the Interior. You are invited to call our office in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv for legal aid.