Approximately one-third of the Knesset members who will be sworn in at a special ceremony on Tuesday are newcomers to the Israeli parliament. Among them are five who, before pledging to serve the Israeli people, had to formally renounce foreign citizenships.
The requirement to give up non-Israeli citizenship did not take Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union), Haim Jelin (Yesh Atid), Abdullah Abu Maaruf (Joint Arab List), and Yoav Kisch (Likud) by surprise. While Israelis may hold dual citizenship, a Basic Law passed in 1958 states that Knesset members cannot pledge allegiance as parliamentarians unless their foreign citizenship has been revoked under the laws of that country.
Svetlova and Abu Maaruf renounced their Russian citizenship. Svetlova, a 37-year-old Arab affairs journalist and doctoral candidate at Hebrew University, immigrated to Israel from Russia at age 14. Fifty-year-old Abu Maaruf, a member of the Druze community, studied medicine in the Soviet Union and is one of the first physicians to practice medicine in the village of Yarka.
Hayim Yalin, head of the Eshkol Regional Council in the region bordering Gaza since 2007, was a familiar face on TV news broadcasts last summer during Operation Protective Edge. Yalin, 56, has given up being a citizen of Argentina. He moved to Israel at the age of 18.
Kisch, a 46-year-old pilot and a grandson of Brig. Frederick Hermann Kisch, the highest-ranking Jew ever to serve in the British Army, has given up his British passport. Frederick Kisch was also an important Zionist leader, having joined the World Zionist Organization in 1922, and heading the political department of the Zionist Executive until Haim Arlosoroff took over the position.
Azaria, a 38-year-old Jerusalem deputy mayor, renounced her American citizenship, which she had held by virtue of her mother having been born in the US.
“My mom made aliya alone at 18. After I was born, she got me American citizenship. Although I’ve never lived in the US, I’ve traveled back and forth regularly to visit family there,” Azaria told The Times of Israel on Monday.
Despite the fact that she calls herself “a proud Zionist” and wants to serve as an Israeli parliamentarian, Azaria does admit that renouncing her American citizenship and giving up her American passport (which she had always kept valid) did give her pause.
“It was a bit emotional,” she said. “But I still have that American-Anglo part of my identity. The official renouncing was just a formality.”
According to Azaria, she had to attend two interviews at the American consulate in Jerusalem, and she had to pay a renunciation penalty of $2,350.
“They were very nice, but they wanted to make sure I fully understood the consequences,” said Azaria, who will not be eligible to regain her American citizenship.
Azaria can still visit the country but will need a visa to do so.
Two years ago, when the 19th Knesset was sworn in, there were also five new MKs who had to give up foreign citizenships in order to take their seats. Like Azaria, two of them — Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid’s Rabbi Dov Lipman — gave up their US passports.
At the time, Maryland-born Lipman wrote on his Facebook page, “I thank the United States of America for my 41 years of citizenship and for all it has done for my family and to help prepare me for election to the Knesset and for my remarkable new status — exclusively Israeli — which feels so right.”
Lipman, whom many Anglophone Israelis looked to as their representative in the Knesset, did not win a seat in the latest elections. He has promised, however, to continue working on the important issues he worked on as an MK, only now in a nongovernmental capacity.
Michael Oren, another new Kulanu MK, knows what his colleague Azaria has just gone through. He had to renounce his American citizenship in 2009, when he became Israel’s ambassador to the US. He served in that position until 2013.
Unlike Azaria, who has never lived in the US, Oren grew up in suburban New Jersey and went to Columbia and Princeton Universities. Although he has lived most of his adult life in Israel, he has said that he still considers himself deeply American.
In 2009, Oren told the New York Times that the hardest thing about becoming an Israeli ambassador was giving up his American citizenship. He said the only thing that got him through the renunciation ceremony was the support of friends at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv who “stayed with me, and hugged me when it was over.”