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Bill Tackles Life Insurance Blacklist

"No one should have to suffer this kind of discrimination."

by Joe Berkofsky

January 22, 2004 | 7:00 pm

New York state legislators are trying to prevent insurance companies from blacklisting travelers to Israel so that they cannot obtain life insurance coverage.

Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York Assembly, and Assemblyman Peter Grannis unveiled a bill Jan. 15 that would bar state insurance firms from denying life insurance to anyone who has traveled to Israel.

"I don't know what Israel travel means: Is it risky lifestyle?" Silver said. "Does this smack of anti-Semitism? Does it smack of participation in an Arab boycott?"

Their move came in response to a recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency report that several major insurance companies around the country are refusing to issue life insurance policies to applicants who recently have visited Israel or, in some cases, to those who plan to travel to Israel or 27 other nations for which the State Department has issued a travel advisory.

The New York bill is aimed solely at insurers that "discriminate" against those who already have been to Israel, Silver said, in part because he has not heard of policy applications asking about future travel plans.

Several top insurance companies, including Allstate, State Farm and TIAA-CREF, recently said that they won't underwrite life insurance policies for people planning to visit Israel or other U.S.-designated hot spots, because they consider such travel too high-risk.

Meanwhile, a young public relations professional in Washington reported that Fidelity Investments denied his otherwise trouble-free application for insurance, because he had visited Israel in 2002.

Officials with Jewish organizations said they had heard of similar cases over the past year. They said the story sparked yet more reports of recent rejections of Jews who had gone to Israel.

"After the story broke, other people told us about it, but they'd never talked about it because they were embarrassed," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Hoenlein could not say how many people complained but said they were all from New York. Silver said he also received three complaints. At a recent news conference, the legislator introduced one such case, that of Dennis Rapps of the Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs.

In the wake of the report, Hoenlein approached Silver, who in 1996 had introduced similar legislation when the New York-based Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. denied life insurance to a senior member of the Orthodox Union (OU) who often visited Israel. In that case, Metropolitan scrapped its policy, and the legislation never reached a vote. But Silver and Grannis' spokesman, Peter Newell, said they expect the current bill to easily win support in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

Silver also said he would bring the bill to other state insurance commissioners and the National Conference of Insurance Legislators in hopes that the New York bill can serve as a model for other states.

Hoenlein and senior officials of other Jewish groups said they would welcome such national attention, in part because they fear insurance red-lining could threaten U.S. travel to Israel at time when the Jewish State can't afford a further drop in tourism.

"Our community is committed to tourism to Israel, and no one should have to suffer this kind of discrimination," said Betty Ehrenberg, director of international affairs and communal relations for the OU's Institute for Public Affairs in Washington.

If such denials "are more widely imposed," Hoenlein said, "people are not going to risk not getting life insurance by going to Israel."

Sarina Roffe, director of communications for the Jewish National Fund, reported that she also was a victim of the boycott on hot spots. Roffe said she recently attempted to switch her life insurance policy with John Hancock Insurance and Financial Services but was rejected, because she had visited Israel within the past two years.

"Within 20 minutes, my agent called and said, 'You're out,'" she said. "You just don't think of Israel as an extreme place. You just don't think it's going to affect you."

The agent also told her that "no one" in the insurance industry is "writing policies for anyone who has been to Israel," Roffe said.

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