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July 9, 2013

Aliyah applicants, Masa interns, Maccabiah players freaking out over Israel Foreign Ministry strike

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/aliyah_applicants_masa_interns_maccabiah_players_freaking_out_over_israel_f/

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Out of service.

You can't be an out-of-the-closet journalist in a bar in Tel Aviv these days without all your panicked American friends gathering 'round and grilling you about when this catastrophic Ministry of Foreign Affairs strike will be over, so that they the entitled ex-pats can get back to reaping the perks of the Jewish homeland.

Although this "labor action," as the Foreign Ministry's union calls it, began back in March, the extreme decision to shut down all consular affairs (save a few emergency services) was enacted somewhat under-the-radar two weeks ago. And thus, one by one, as Israelis abroad tried to replace lost passports and members of the Diaspora tried to get their visa/citizenship on, they started to realize that the whole damn system was down.

Iris Pedowitz, a California 20something planning to travel to Israel through the popular "Masa" internship program this year, wrote on her Facebook wall: "Dear Israeli consulate, Please end your strike. I'd really like to get a visa. Best, Iris." And a spokeswoman for Masa who did not wish to be identified confirmed that indeed, the strike is "making it very difficult" for participants to receive their necessary work visas. Deadlines are right around the corner, she said, and the strike "is probably going to start causing a big problem."

The website for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles is currently stamped with a bloody red stripe that reads:

Due to a strike at the ministry of foreign affairs there will be no consular services, excluding life saving urgent matters, until further notice.

No one can say exactly how many people have been impacted by the strike. But Yair Frommer, chairman of the Finance Ministry's workers union, told the Jewish Journal that he expects it has affected "thousands of Israeli citizens and many, many foreign citizens — because we do not at the moment grant visas, work visas, or Aliyah [the common method to attain Israeli citizenship]." Ministry staffers are also refusing to assist in all diplomatic visits at home and abroad, which Frommer said has prevented ministerial visits to Israel by top government officials from Japan, Hungary, Samoa and more.

Frommer explained that the main cause of the strike is the "deteriorating working conditions of our diplomats abroad." He said that one-in-three Foreign Ministry employees eventually resigns in disgust, and that after 15 years at the ministry, the average worker only earns 9,000 shekels (or about $2,500) per month.

Asked for a statement on the strike, Dalit Goodman, a 25-year-old from the Valley (and close friend of mine) who planned on making Aliyah this summer, wrote the following:

Learning about the news of the hold on Aliyah is not only an extreme disappointment, but frightening also. I was so ready to start a new life in this place I thought I could call home.

The most surprising part of the whole mess for many Americans in Israel, or those planning on making the trip, is its relative lack of hype. "I'm pretty sure if all the U.S. consulates just stopped doing services it'd be a big deal," Pedowitz told me over Facebook chat. 

Additional casualties of the labor dispute may be the 45 in-limbo international athletes who had secured a spot in the fast-approaching Maccabiah Games in Tel Aviv, but who come from countries where a visa is required to enter Israel. Eyal Tiberger, CEO of the Maccabi World Union, told the Jewish Journal that "it will be very disappointing" if the athletes are blocked from entering Israel because of a labor dispute. "They've been training for the last few years, and we have invested money in hosting them and making all the arrangements. ... Now, they're just sitting on their suitcases and waiting."

Tiberger said the players' exclusion from the games "would be a major disappointment for us, for the Maccabi movement and for the State of Israel." (A rep for the Maccabiah Games said he was unsure how the tournament would be rearranged if the 45 players were denied entry.)

So when can we expect an end to the immigration nightmare? "From our side, this could be resolved tomorrow," said Frommer.

The union is waiting on a response from officials at the Ministry of Finance — but because Frommer said those officials often "have problems [passing] a policy without instructions from above," the union is really just waiting on a move from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself.

Bibi better not take his time on this one. He's got 45 professional athletes, a panicking Diaspora and a Taglit-load of quarter-life-crisis Americans in his hands. And they're probably not going to be content with a comfort meal at the Chabad House.

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