The Ministry of Interior has the power to accept or refuse Aliyah applications by law as the state agency responsible for immigration to Israel. In recent years this authority has been used increasingly to deny or ignore applications according to the Law of Return for those with a psychiatric history of mental illness.
Aliyah candidates from North America and elsewhere typically start the Aliyah process with a representative of the Jewish Agency, or Nefesh b’Nefesh, an organization established especially for this purpose. When filling out a form to begin the Aliyah process, such as the one from “Jewish Agency for Israel,” applicants will be questioned on their psychiatric history; have they struggled with mental issues in the past, with conditions such as depression, schizophrenia etc. If they have suffered from such problems, their application may be rejected, or totally ignored.
The inconvenience and unfairness of this forced declaration has proven to be a major problem for people making Aliyah. Young people from the US attempting to make Aliyah in recent years, and beginning their application process are being told to come to Israel in order to complete the process if they admit to past mental conditions, even minor ones.
Organizations such as Nefesh b’Nefesh are supposed to assist in the Aliyah process and make it easier, but once the applicant’s history of mental illness has been discovered, the application is frozen. They are told that only the Ministry of Interior can decide and that therefore they can no longer take responsibility for the case.
However, once they enter Israel and attempt to deal with the Ministry of Interior, these applicants encounter many issues, such as the requirement of having a letter from an Israeli psychiatrist stating that one is mentally fit. Needless to say this requirement is difficult and causes much frustration.
Legal Basis – Law of Return
The Law of Return (1950) outlined the fact that all Jews, or descendants of Jews, have the right to immigrate to Israel to provide a place of refuge and safety especially after the Holocaust. The Law highlights that the Government of Israel can decide who is allowed to make Aliyah, while incorporating the basic principle that whoever is a danger to the public should not be integrated into Israeli society.
This is made evident in Section 2 of the Law of Return that says the Ministry of Interior may decide not to grant an immigrant visa if there is reason to believe that “the applicant may endanger public health or the security of the state.”
Usually this principle has been used to deny Aliyah for those with a criminal background that might be a danger to Israeli society. Unfortunately, this same concept has been applied to people with a history of mental illness who are viewed as public dangers.
The arguments against rejecting Aliyah applicants
Denial of Aliyah based on a history of mental illness alone has little legal standing and the State’s argument of “pubic danger” is unsatisfactory due to a number of factors.
Firstly, Section 2(b)(2) of the Law of Return describes a situation in which someone has a highly contagious disease and letting them into Israel would pose a public health risk and lead to an epidemic. It’s obvious that those with a complicated psychiatric history do not pose a threat to public life like those with a contagious disease.
Secondly, The Law of Return was introduced to provide refuge to all Jews including children and grandchildren of Jews. Also, because of trauma that the Jewish people had experienced, most notably through the Holocaust, it’s likely that many of the new immigrants would have suffered from a multitude of mental disorders such as post-trauma anxiety because of persecutions they have suffered. Rejection of their right to Aliyah and a safe haven in Israel is unthinkable.
Thirdly, recent years have shown a growth in awareness, treatment, medication and acceptance of mental illness, though the stigma is still strong, especially apparently, with the Israeli Immigration Authority. A person would not be denied immigration to Israel for a physical medical condition, but applications of those with mental issues are ignored and refused.
Clearly the current system is unfair, and those with a psychiatric history of mental illness should be treated equally to those without mental illness.
What can be done?
In the last few years, our law firm has worked to fight this, taking clients’ cases to court and succeeding in gaining them their right to make Aliyah despite a past of mental illness. Disallowing people their legal right to return to their homeland, based solely on their psychiatric past, is not just and not legal.
We are also working with Israeli NGOs to help improve the system overall and bring about a change in the interpretation of the law and immigration regulations.
Advocate Joshua Pex is a partner in the law firm of Cohen, Decker, Pex & Brosh and regular contributor to Israel Today