The Martinez family, headed by 70-year-old Emanuel and his 59-year-old wife Ruth, worked hard, even though it was tough to manage, since they really had no legal status in the State of Israel. Having come here from a farm in Kentucky on a tourist visa that had eventually expired, they remained nevertheless, convinced they were "home."
Life in Israel isn't easy for those who want to become a member of the tribe; if you are not halachically Jewish (according to the laws of the Torah) you must convince the authorities to allow you to convert, even if your father was Jewish. If neither parent is Jewish, your chances are even worse -- Israeli officials generally want to know why anyone would want to be Jewish, and make it as difficult as possible for someone to do so.
Part of that is S.O.P. -- the Torah makes it clear that Judaism does not seek converts -- but Israel takes that attitude to an art form. And unless you already qualify to become a citizen of the state through the Law of Return -- that is, unless you are already one-quarter Jewish, somehow, with at least one Jewish grandparent -- frankly, Scarlet, you are usually out of luck. Gentiles who want to convert and join the Jewish people are usually politely advised to do that elsewhere in the world.
Emanuel had a letter from his mother, telling him about the candles she remembered her own mother lighting on Friday nights, and the mezuzah she saw adorning the doorposts of her house, and those on the homes in her village in Mexico. But the Rabbinate said it wasn't strong enough evidence to prove Jewish ancestry, and the Martinez family failed the make the grade for a chance at a conversion program in Israel -- thus condemning them to having to live life below the radar.
The family was bewildered by the decision.
The Martinez kids had grown up with their parents reading the Bible to them every day, and their observance of kashruth came from the text: 34-year-old Joshua remembered slaughtering animals on the farm "by ourselves, according to the kosher laws because we couldn't get kosher meat in town."
The family donated money each year to Jewish causes, including those that supported the Holy Land, and when they received a settlement on a legal case they sold their furniture and boarded a plane for Israel, never dreaming they would ever have to look back.
That was five years ago.
Five days ago, Ruth came home from a walk in the park to discover her beloved husband and two sons were missing, and both daughters were gone. The elderly patriarch of the family was thrown into Ramle jail by Israel's immigration police, together with his sons Yirmiyahu and Joshua, to await deportation.
No one was allowed to see a lawyer. Joshua and Emanuel never saw a judge. Yirmiyahu finally was brought to a court room, only to be told he would be deported as well. The daughters, who had spotted the police on their way home from the store, went into hiding. They later reappeared and warned their mother that she would have to join them.
Tonight, the immigration police came knocking on the door, looking for Ruth and her daughters. The older woman had already made arrangements to give away the family dog, Charlie, her daughters' kitten, and the two cockatiels she had raised. The beautiful etchings made by her husband on Jerusalem stone would have to be abandoned, she told us; they were too heavy to take along where she was going.
"We're leaving tonight," she whispered in a faint voice when we came to say goodbye in her darkened apartment in the "patio" section of Arad. "We'll hide until we can get to the American Embassy -- they'll send us back, I hope, so we can be reunited with my husband and sons." The main thing, she emphasized, was to avoid the brutal Israeli immigration police, who had no compunction about throwing a woman and her daughters into prison to be held for who knows how long, until they decided to deport them to who knows where.
The Martinez family did not rely on government handouts. They worked for their daily bread, and they paid their bills. They were active members of the congregation, and they wanted to convert to Judaism but were repeatedly denied the privilege, because they did not qualify for Israeli citizenship. The did not qualify for Israeli citizenship, because they were not Jewish.
They were deeply committed to the existence of Israel as a Jewish State, and they were strong supporters of the Israeli government. They were active members of their community and their congregation. They were socially responsible, and they were respected by their neighbors and friends.
What then was their crime, that the government of Israel chose to treat them in this manner?
It behooves our Ministry of Interior to take a good hard look at the Martinez case, and its treatment of this family -- because others are watching and learning about the real values of Israel's government officials, as opposed to the platitudes mouthed by politicians who would do better to carry out a serious probe of the activities that take place under their auspices.
When 2,000 illegal Sudanese can become legal residents of Arad by virtue of their ability to run an Egyptian border, one has to question why Israel's immigration police spent so much time and money to pursue and deport the hapless Martinez family as if they were hardened criminals.
Perhaps it was just because American citizens were simply an easier mark.