The Beresfords were born to Jewish parents in South Africa. In 1985 the couple applied for immigrant visas, and their application was turned down on the grounds that they are Messianic Jews. In 1986 they arrived in Israel as tourists, and another application for immigrant visas was refused for the same reason. An appeal to the High Court of Justice was rejected in 1989. Half a year later, the couple again appealed to the High Court, and only a few months ago this appeal was also rejected. The Beresfords have been staying in Israel on tourist visas, and these visas will expire on February 20, 1993. Two other families of Messianic Jews the Kendalls and the Speakmans joined the Beresfords’ second suit and therefore also have the same status now.
The Beresfords have asked to immigrate to Israel as Jews under the Law of Return. The law defines a Jew as a person who was born to a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism. The law also guarantees citizenship under the Law of Return to relatives of Jews, so that families can stay together despite differences in religion. (This is why many immigrants from the CIS are issued immigrant visas even though they are not Jewish.) However, a person who was Jewish and converted voluntarily to another religion is deemed to have thereby declared his or her desire to dissociate from the Jewish people; consequently, the Law of Return does not apply to such a person.
The Beresfords belong to a group that believes that Jesus is the Messiah. This belief is what marks the clear separation between Judaism and Christianity. Belief that Jesus is the Messiah cannot be reconciled with Judaism. The couple chose this faith, and the State of Israel respects their choice. However, they are not considered Jews, since they have voluntarily converted, and they are therefore not eligible to move to Israel as Jews.
The Beresfords’ application for permanent residency in Israel was also rejected. They claim that they were turned down because of opposition to their faith. This is not the case: the application was rejected because they do not meet the general criteria that the State of Israel uses in deciding on eligibility for a permanent residency visa. The court stressed this point, ruling that ‘the contention that the appellants’ being ‘Messianic Jews’ was an extraneous consideration in the respondent’s decision is groundless. This fact is not an issue in considering permanent residency under the Law of Entry into Israel. The respondent’s aforementioned policy applies equally to all nonresidents, whether they are ‘Messianic Jews’ or members of any other sect, who are ineligible for immigrant visas under the Law of Return. It does not come into play and did not come into play against the appellants, but it neither is nor should be a factor in their favor.’
The fact that members of their group are residents and citizens of Israel further refutes the couple’s contention. In the cases of these individuals, there were other circumstances that justified giving citizenship or residency, and their religion was not an obstacle. Like most countries, Israel reserves the right to approve or reject the right of residency of foreigners. Ms. Beresford claimed that being kept away from two of their sons, who are Israeli citizens, will cause her profound emotional harm. The Minister of the Interior went beyond the letter of the law and disclosed, for the court’s review, the criteria by which family-reunification decisions are made, i.e., an adult parent who is alone and has no children abroad. Ms. Beresford is not alone, and she has four children abroad. She does not meet the criteria for permanent residency. Her status is the same as that of any non-Jew who wishes to settle in Israel.
The High Court considered the couple’s case twice. Six different judges reached the same conclusion the Beresfords are not eligible to settle in Israel, neither as immigrants nor as permanent residents. The Supreme Court is one of the central pillars of the rule of law in Israel. The Beresfords have exhausted their prerogatives in the Israeli judicial system, prerogatives given them in full fairness. When they failed, however, they declared that they would not comply with the court’s ruling and would not leave Israel when their visas expired.
Ms. Beresford’s attempt to justify remaining in Israel on humanitarian grounds by citing the importance of her relationship with her sons is surprising. The issue has had reverberations all over the world, and Israel has been asked many questions in the matter. But the sons, who are Israeli citizens, and whose separation from their mother, she claims, may cause her profound emotional harm, have never appealed to any government agency. This silence on their part casts the veracity of the mother’s claim into doubt.
After the end of the deliberations, Ms. Beresford’s mother, who has been an Israeli citizen for five years, asked to be able to reunite with her daughter because she needs her assistance. The family neglected to mention that the mother did not live in Israel after she became a citizen; she arrived only recently, after the appeals failed.
As for the charge that Israel is carrying out ‘deportations’ the tourist visas were extended again and again. The Israel Ministry of the Interior let the families remain here for the duration of the hearings, and extended their visas for four months after the end of the hearings so that they could get organized. It even acceded to a request to extend the visas for an additional month. When the month ends on February 20 the visas will expire, and if the families have not left by then, their presence in the country will be illegal. These families are no different from any tourist who is issued a tourist visa for a limited amount of time. If the families leave Israel on time, they will be able to visit the country again.
B. Points to Stress
1. Israel does not discriminate on the basis of religious affiliation or creed. Christian and Muslim citizens and permanent residents of Israel enjoy full equal rights.
2. Messianic Jews also live in Israel with equal rights. (There are over 2,000 such people.) The families discussed here have never been citizens or permanent residents, but only tourists. Israeli law does not entitle them to Israeli citizenship.
3. This is not a deportation of citizens or residents. It is a removal from Israel of foreign tourists whose visas have expired.
4. Every democratic country in the world reserves the exclusive right to determine who is eligible to enter its territory and who is eligible for citizenship or residency. These families do not meet any of the criteria stipulated in the law. The humanitarian grounds that, the families claim, justify their remaining in Israel were investigated seriously by the court and the Government and were found unpersuasive.