Inside story

Israeli children born abroad are automatically citizens, yet some are locked out

Children of Israelis overseas who don’t have Israeli passports can’t enter on foreign documents due to COVID curbs; a long-running High Court petition seeks to change that

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

A couple reunites in the arrival hall of Ben Gurion Airport. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
A couple reunites in the arrival hall of Ben Gurion Airport. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Thousands of Israeli children living overseas have been barred from entering Israel since March 2020 because they lack passports, and the issue has become even more pressing in light of Israel’s new Omicron-related border closures.

These children are legally Israeli citizens through parentage, despite having been born abroad, even if their parents never registered them with the state. This is because Israel’s 1952 Nationality Law automatically ascribes citizenship to a child born abroad to an Israeli parent. In a Kafkaesque turn, citizenship applies even if the state is unaware of these foreign-born citizens, and in a catch-22, citizenship can only be terminated following registration.

Prior to Israel’s first COVID-19 lockdown, these children were able to enter Israel as tourists on their foreign passports. This practice was abruptly ended when Israel closed its skies to non-citizens, and embassies abroad refused to grant entry permits to these Israeli children until their parents obtained Israeli passports for them, catching many off-guard.

According to a spokeswoman for the Population and Immigration Authority, the Israeli passport requirement had previously been “enforced, but not strictly. COVID-19 obliged us to be careful, as it obliges many states to take many actions that have not been taken before.”

Since then, Israel has made numerous exemptions for non-citizen students, business travelers, and intermittently even tourists to enter the country, yet it officially still excludes those of its own citizens who do not have Israeli passports.

An ongoing court case brought by parents seeks to ease what they have called “draconian” and ever-shifting conditions for bringing their children into Israel. These 36 families have sued the state in the High Court of Justice demanding that it admit their children under the pre-COVID policy.

Justices Uzi Fogelman (C), Yosef Elron (L), and Ofer Grosskopf preparing for a Supreme Court hearing in Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The families are represented by lawyers Batya Sachs and Gilad Itzhak Bar-Tal, who proposed a simple solution to the court. According to Sachs, “what we suggested is, in order to let them come into the country, just introduce a declaration by the parent saying that the child is their child and make them able to come in using their dual citizenship, their foreign passport.”

Sachs says that the court recognizes these children are Israelis and “made a decision that the government should review the policy” regarding how to enable them to come into the country. The government’s response is still pending.

This fall, the government offered a one-time exemption, allowing affected families to bring their children to Israel provided they promise to complete the registration process within 60 days of returning home. But the families say that’s not enough time to address lacunae in paperwork, and otherwise does not solve their registration problem.

They describe Israel’s registration requirements as overly burdensome and, at times, absurd. To prove parentage, the families must present the state not only with birth certificates and proof of the parents’ relationship, but also with an assemblage of personal medical records to prove their children are their biological offspring, including ultrasound scans, blood tests confirming the pregnancy, signed letters from delivering doctors and hospital discharge papers. And then, they must present themselves in person at one of Israel’s overseas missions.

Michal, Daphne, Lilly, and Yair Zaslavsky in Los Angeles, following a recent visit to the Australian Embassy. (Courtesy of Yair Zaslavsky)

“When we moved [from Australia to the US], we didn’t take with us all kinds of medical records regarding pregnancy tests and stuff like that. That’s it, she’s born, why would I need that?” Yair Zaslavsky, one of the parents in the suit, explained.

Zaslavsky is a father to 7-year-old Daphne, whom he and his wife had in Melbourne, after leaving Israel.

He’s currently in the middle of a multi-month process to obtain Daphne’s birth certificate and medical records from Melbourne – exacerbated by Australia’s own COVID lockdowns – only after which can he schedule an appointment at Israel’s closest consulate, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) away from his home in Maple Valley, Washington.

“We’ll take Daphne with us to the appointment, which is going to be interesting, because on top of all these things, she has autism, so we don’t know how she will behave in the meeting. And only then we will have a passport.”

A Population and Immigration Authority spokeswoman said: “We recommend that Israelis act in accordance with the law immediately upon the birth of their children and register them. This will make it easier for them later on, since when the child is just born all the documents are still in the hands of the parents.”

The medical records requirement has felt invasive to some Israeli parents and raised questions as to the state’s motives for requesting the materials.

“I resented the pressure. I resented the intrusion. I just thought, this is not right. And this whole thing with scans I don’t understand — is that to prove that they’re Jewish or not Jewish?” asked Aviva M., who lives in Boca Raton, Florida, with her unregistered daughter and American husband and declined to give her full name for fear of future repercussions by the state.

Nimrod Erez (L), Katrin Osmialowski (R), and their daughter Elah, on a pre-pandemic visit in Israel. (Courtesy of Nimrod Erez)

Nimrod Erez, who lives with his German-born wife and their 12-year-old daughter in Los Angeles, coordinates the legal effort on behalf of the families who are challenging the Israeli state. Erez and his wife decided not to register Elah, their daughter, for ideological reasons.

“Even though I don’t want Elah to be an Israeli citizen, I still want her to have a deep connection to Israel, and that can only come through visiting,” Erez explained.

Until the pandemic, the family made annual trips to Israel, where they have many relatives.

They brought the case in part because they have found Israeli authorities unresponsive to their problem. Had Elah not been Israeli, she could have entered as a tourist during non-lockdown periods. But because the state considers her Israeli, she has been subject to the passport standard.

“When our first approaches were made to the Population Authority, their response was, ‘Well, sorry, this is your problem. There’s nothing we can do or are going to do.’ And they literally said to somebody that their foreign-born spouse should have known the Israeli law before they got married and had children with them.”

In addition to shouldering the burden of navigating family politics and bureaucracy to meet Israeli entry requirements, Erez feels that the state’s demands are shifting, making it difficult for families who want to comply.

“Since April, there’s not once been any clarity about what actually will make it possible to travel to Israel with the children. The rules and regulations constantly change and contradict,” he said.

Unofficially, Israel has recently encouraged parents to return to treating their children as tourists.

Batya Sachs, the lawyer, says that the government itself has implied that families should return to their original method of bringing their children in as tourists.

According to Sachs, “on October 31, we got the notification from the government, and even though it wasn’t said specifically, basically what they’re saying is that Israel has opened up now to tourists. So, for [children] who have been vaccinated, they’re able to come now as tourists. [The government] didn’t say in this word, they used a lot of words, but that’s what we understood.”

Adina F., a Washington, DC-based Israeli with a non-registered American daughter — who similarly preferred not to give her full name — received similar indications from the DC Embassy and already successfully tested this theory.

“At some point, [the embassy representative] said: ‘If your daughter is vaccinated, follow those instructions and you’ll be fine. And she doesn’t need a permit.’” Adina’s daughter entered Israel last week on her foreign passport.

But the rise of Omicron – the latest and most heavily mutated variant to date – makes that solution hollow for now, since Israel on Sunday night introduced a ban on all tourists for at least the next two weeks.

A prior legal challenge to the registration requirement, brought to the Supreme Court in the summer of 2020 by a father who couldn’t bring his American-residing daughter into the country to visit him, did not create a precedent to enable other children to enter Israel.

The Population and Immigration Authority says it has received hundreds of related appeals since the start of the pandemic, but the actual number of families affected is likely well into the thousands. A popular Facebook group for families trying to bring in their non-passported children has almost 6,000 members, and with close to a million Israelis residing overseas, the number of affected families is conceivably higher.

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