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TOI investigatesIsrael has troubling track record of citizenship for crooks

Israel now requires FBI checks of would-be immigrants. Why’s that controversial?

An aliya turf war between the Interior Ministry and Nefesh B’Nefesh highlights how easy it remains for criminals to obtain Israeli citizenship

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Immigrants from France arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, July 2018. (Nir Kafri, The Jewish Agency for Israel)
Illustrative: Immigrants arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, July 2018. The people in the photograph have no connection to the content of this article. (Nir Kafri, The Jewish Agency for Israel)

Since Israel’s inception, thousands of Jews from around the world have immigrated each year in a process known as aliya. Unfortunately, a small subset of these immigrants have a criminal history, yet they often find it all too easy to obtain Israeli citizenship.

That is why, when a colleague pointed out to this reporter that the website of Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit organization that helps North American Jews immigrate to Israel, had been updated to indicate that immigrants from North America now had to undergo a criminal background check, The Times of Israel tried to find out what lay behind the new requirement. Was the government finally getting serious about the problem of criminals obtaining Israeli citizenship?

Possibly.

But while the Interior Ministry has been requiring FBI background checks, there are those who oppose this rule, saying it slows down and discourages aliya. Meanwhile, there appears to be no dent in the number of alleged criminals or convicted criminals obtaining Israeli citizenship.

A new requirement?

“The Israeli Ministry of the Interior (Misrad Hapnim) has recently decided a criminal background check is required for all aliya applicants,” the Nefesh B’Nefesh website said in a post dated May 5. The website went on to explain that this new requirement involved sending fingerprints to the FBI and obtaining a document called an apostille, an internationally valid certification of authenticity.

The Times of Israel called Nefesh B’Nefesh’s spokeswoman, Yael Katsman, to ask about the new requirements. Katsman said that the issue was very technical and complicated, and suggested contacting the Jewish Agency, the organization charged with vetting new immigrants to Israel who are from anywhere in the world besides the former Soviet Union. (A third organization, Nativ, vets immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The Interior Ministry itself vets those would-be immigrants who arrive in Israel as tourists and seek to change their status while here. The Interior Ministry also has the authority to override decisions made by any of the other three organizations.)

Illustrative: New immigrants disembark from an aliya flight at Ben Gurion Airport, August 15, 2018. The people in the photograph have no connection to the content of this article  (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

A spokeswoman for the Jewish Agency confirmed that a new requirement had come into effect as of May 1.

“The Jewish Agency facilitates aliya within the guidelines of the Ministry of Interior, which as of May 1st requires a background check for all aliya candidates,” she wrote. “This measure is necessary to ensure that no one applying for aliya is seeking to escape justice.”

The Jewish Agency spokeswoman suggested contacting the Interior Ministry for further details about the rule change.

But when The Times of Israel contacted Population and Immigration Authority spokeswoman Sabine Hadad, she indicated that the “new requirement” wasn’t new at all. “There has been no change of requirements!” she wrote in a text message. “Why are you asking the Jewish Agency about what we do? Ask us.”

Eleven years of background checks

Hadad told The Times of Israel that until 2009 it had been enough for new immigrants to Israel to sign a declaration saying they had no criminal past. The Israeli government took their word for it. But then, in October 2009, a horrifying murder occurred that shocked the entire country.

Damian Karlik, an immigrant from Russia, murdered his former employer Dmitry Oshrenko as well as his employer’s wife, two small children and parents at their home in Rishon Lezion.

“Karlik was from Russia,” Hadad said. “He had made aliya with his girlfriend. He signed the declaration that he was not a criminal but in fact he had been charged with armed robbery in Russia; we just didn’t know it.”

Hundreds of mourners gathered at the Kibbutz Givat Brenner cemetery on October 18, 200,9 as an entire family of six from Rishon Lezion was laid to rest, a day after they were stabbed to death and their home set alight. The victims were the Oshrenko family: grandfather and grandmother Edward and Ludmilla, both 56; parents Tattiana, 28, and Dimitry, 32; and children Revital, 3, and 4-month-old Netanel. (Photo by Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)

Since the Oshrenko murders in 2009, said Hadad, all new immigrants to Israel are required to produce a police-issued background check from their country of origin. The document has to be apostilled, or officially certified, to prevent forgeries, she said.

So why, ToI asked Hadad, did Nefesh B’Nefesh claim the requirement was new?

“Until recently, we had some kind of unclear agreement with Nefesh B’Nefesh that if someone makes aliya through them, we would let them carry out the criminal [background] check. But then there was a decision to stop that, and [make it so] that everyone, including immigrants from North America, must produce a background check.”

Hadad refused to say why the government had taken the responsibility for criminal checks away from Nefesh B’Nefesh. She did hint, however, that the incident had caused tension between Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Interior Ministry.

“In May, Nefesh B’Nefesh wrote on their website that the Interior Ministry had changed the rules. We got very annoyed because it’s not true, we’ve always required background checks. They even apologized to us over this.”

Supporters of Nefesh B’Nefesh fire back in the Knesset

On August 4, Likud MK Ariel Kallner sent an official query letter to the interior minister entitled “A Bureaucratic Procedure for Olim.”

“Nefesh B’Nefesh published updated information on their website regarding the Interior Ministry’s requirements for an FBI criminal background check and apostille certifying that the document is authentic,” he wrote.

“Such a check costs hundreds of dollars, beyond the fact that it piles bureaucracy on the new immigrant. I would like to ask: 1) How does your ministry plan to address this? 2) Does this rule only apply to immigrants from the United States and Canada and if so, why?”

A week later, the Knesset Immigration and Absorption Committee convened to discuss the issue at the behest of Nefesh B’Nefesh. The committee’s then chairman MK David Bitan (Likud) suggested that the Interior Ministry forgo the apostille certification requirement for the background check for several months due to the coronavirus crisis.

“The waiting period for an apostille is very long and is preventing people from immigrating to Israel,” Bitan said.

Zev Gershinsky, director of government advocacy for Nefesh B’Nefesh, told the hearing that the coronavirus had caused a huge spike in the number of Americans interested in immigrating to Israel but that bureaucratic delays, including the apostille requirement, were slowing their arrival.

“Did any North Americans forge the background checks?” asked Bitan. “Out of 100,000 immigrants, were there any forgeries?” he pressed.

“Not that I recall lately,” replied Shai Felber, head of the Jewish Agency’s Immigration and Absorption unit.

“So then I don’t understand what the Population Authority wants,” said Bitan.

Likud MK David Bitan leaves the offices of the Lahav 433 anti-fraud unit on September 16, 2018, after being questioning by police in a corruption case. (Flash90)

(In January, Israel’s state prosecutor announced that it intended to indict Bitan, pending a hearing, on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, in nine alleged instances in which he allegedly accepted bribes in exchange for using his government position to promote the interests of various businesspeople. Bitan’s hearing [Hebrew link] took place earlier this month. He denies all the allegations.)

Yoel Lipovetsky, a representative of the Immigration and Population Authority, which is part of the Interior Ministry, spoke to the Knesset session via Zoom, and fired back at critics.

“If we’re talking about the background check, I, unlike Nefesh B’Nefesh, do not see it as an obstacle. First and foremost we are talking about the public welfare. No one wants pedophiles to come into Israel, and unfortunately this has happened. We don’t want to give entry to criminals, rapists or murderers. We can close our eyes and say it’s not important, but I think the public welfare is the most important thing there is in this country.”

A brief history of criminals who made aliya

One of the most notorious criminals to ever attempt to make aliya was American mobster Meyer Lansky, who lived in Israel for two years from 1970 to 1972 but left after then-prime minister Golda Meir ultimately refused to grant him citizenship.

But since then, Israel’s track record when it comes to giving citizenship to alleged and convicted criminals has been less than exemplary. Although it is impossible to know how many criminals the government successfully kept out over the years, some of its lapses are notable.

In 1972, the same year that Lansky left, Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, who was wanted in France for allegedly embezzling $60 million, moved to Israel. He was elected to the Knesset in 1977 despite the fact that France had asked for his extradition. Flatto-Sharon’s political adviser at the time was Shabtay Kalmanovich, a Russian-Israeli man who would in 1988 be exposed and convicted as a Soviet spy.

Shmuel Flatto-Sharon (L) with MK David Bitan at a rally in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he and his wife face legal investigations, in Tel Aviv, on August 9, 2017. (Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A 1996 FBI report about the Semion Mogilevich crime organization claimed that the same Kalmanovich had used his connections in the Israeli government to obtain Israeli passports for leading members of the Solntsevskaya Russian organized crime group.

At a December 11, 1996, hearing of the Knesset State Control Committee, the then-head of intelligence in the Israeli police, Hezi Leder, told the Knesset that more than 30 senior Russian organized crime figures had recently illegally been granted Israeli citizenship by the Interior Ministry, through an alleged accomplice who worked in the ministry.

At the same Knesset hearing, Labor MK Moshe Shahal, who had been minister of police under Yitzhak Rabin, told the Knesset that members of Russian law enforcement had warned him that Russian organized crime groups were actively trying to gain entry into Israel and infiltrate Israeli institutions.

Former police minister Moshe Shahal arrives to cast his vote for the leadership of the Labor party on July 2, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“He told me that all institutions in Russia, from courts to the political system to the police, have been infiltrated by criminals, who inject vast sums of money into the system. He told me [Russian police] were aware of efforts to do the same thing in Israel… infiltrating the media, municipalities and municipal companies. We are talking about worldwide activity and Israel is an easy access point because it’s very easy to gain entry to this country,” said Shahal.

Since that time, Knesset members, primarily from Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, have repeatedly passed laws or tried to pass laws that ease restrictions on obtaining Israeli citizenship.

In July 2007, Marina Barel, a police officer who investigated international organized crime, told a Knesset panel that Yisrael Beytenu’s initiatives were causing problems for the Israeli police force.

“From the Israel Police point of view, we have a problem with businessmen from the former Soviet Union. With all due respect to legitimate businesspeople,” she said, “who come here and bring their capital and contribute to the Israeli economy, we are very opposed and scared that money of unknown origin will enter Israel and people will get an Israeli passport and travel the world and present themselves as Israelis, and we will start getting extradition requests and queries from countries with which we have excellent relations. It ends up being our problem even though this person has almost never even entered Israel.”

She added: “There are tons of criminals who really want an Israeli passport in order to remove restrictions on their travel and business activities abroad. We are aware that these criminals have for a long time been trying to get this law [easing citizenship requirements] passed.”

In June 2017, the Knesset passed a law, proposed by Yisrael Beytenu MKs Oded Forer and Yulia Malinovsky, that allows anyone eligible for Israeli citizenship to obtain a passport without actually living in the country.

Knesset Member Yulia Malinovsky at a joint Economy and Welfare Committee meeting held to discuss budgets for elderly people, at the Knesset, on December 11, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Last month, Maariv reported (Hebrew) that since the passage of the law more than 40 percent of Russian speakers who immigrated to Israel left the country just months afterward.

Alleged criminals from France

Meanwhile, in July 2019, SIRASCO, the branch of the French police charged with collecting data on organized crime, published a list of the five most significant organized crime trends for the year 2018.

One of these, it said, was “French-Israeli crime,” describing dual French-Israeli citizens who carry out internet scams from Israel, targeting victims in France whose losses amount to “many billions of euros,” the report said.

“[Some] of these white-collar criminals have… taken advantage of their French-Israeli dual nationality to choose to live in Israel and thereby evade punishment,” the report said.

In other words, the report was asserting, an entire criminal organization managed to make aliya — immigrate to Israel — without being stopped at the border.

In addition to organized crime, many alleged pedophiles are also reportedly immigrating to Israel. CBS News reported earlier this year that dozens of pedophiles had escaped justice in the United States and were now living in Israel, free to potentially victimize more children.

‘We’re doing our best’

A source inside one of the organizations that facilitates immigration told The Times of Israel that despite this poor track record, staff really do try their hardest to balance the need to encourage immigration with the need to keep criminals out, but that some people slip through the cracks.

“Believe me, no one wants to see criminals or pedophiles entering Israel,” the source said.

But if that is the case, why are they still getting in?

The Times of Israel posed this question to Hadad of the Population Authority. She said it was not always easy to know who is a criminal.

“Do you know how many small-time criminals are wanted in their country that Interpol does not issue information about?” she asked. “If Interpol doesn’t report things to the Israeli police, we have no way of knowing about them. And sometimes the criminals change their names,” she added.

Asked what the Interior Ministry plans to do about the unknown number of criminals who are already here, she replied, “We’re only in charge of their status. The rest is the job of the police.”

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