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Monday, March 31, 2008

An African Correspondent

I've noticed over the years that this site has attracted a fairly diverse readership.  By this I mean that Jews of pretty much every stripe feel comfortable stopping by, and many non-Jews from around the world visit treppenwitz to catch a glimpse (however subjective) of life in Israel.

A common thread that seems to bind my readership together is a shared love for Israel and the desire to visit the country personally.  For some, visits to Israel are an annual (or more frequent) ritual.  For others a visit to Israel is a pilgrimage to be undertaken once in a decade.  And for still others it is a once-in-a-lifetime dream to visit 'the holy land'.

Several years ago I noticed from my sitemeter that I was getting a daily 'hit' (site visit) from a reader in Kenya.  At first I assumed it was probably an expat Israeli living there who was longing for a taste of home. But then I started getting thoughtful comments on my posts from a young non-Jewish African man who seemed to be remarkably well informed about Israeli history and culture... and I realized that this must be my faithful Kenyan reader.

Over the years I've enjoyed reading this young man's comments and have delighted in seeing his 'take' on current events here in Israel.  And after a while, his comments were joined by occasional emails and the sharing back and forth of essays and news clips we each thought the other might find interesting.

But despite the ongoing correspondence, this young man remained an anomaly... and the reason for his love of Israel remained a complete mystery.    I knew nothing about his religious beliefs or his political leanings (other than that he supported - unconditionally - Israel's right to self-defense).

As time went on, his detailed references to local geography and his use of Israeli slang piqued my curiosity and I asked him how many times he had been to Israel.  I was shocked by his response.  Apparently he had been reading about Israel since he was a child and had sustained a dream of visiting since grade school.  But he had never been to Israel.

After almost three years of reading this young man's topical comments and thought-provoking emails I learned that he had applied for a tourist visa to visit Israel.

His plan was rather straightforward:  He wanted to take a week or two vacation from his job as an IT manager, buy a plane ticket to Israel and simply do the tourist bit.  The majority of you reading this are probably nodding approvingly, wondering what could stand in the way of something so common and straightforward... something many of us have done dozens of times in the past.

Well, what few people from the industrialized west ever stop to consider is the ease with which they can get permission to visit a foreign country if they so desire.  Many citizens of western countries don't even require visas to visit Israel as a tourist, and most of those that are required to get visas consider it a mere formality.

But what if your life's dream was to visit Israel... but you lived in the third world?  What then?

As a young adult, my African correspondent's frequent contacts with the Israeli Embassy/Consular staff for information had been politely but firmly rebuffed.  This young man had made numerous inquiries about visiting Israel... volunteering on various programs... and even looked into serving in the IDF.  But despite his enthusiasm, his requests were politely, and routinely, declined. 

You see, Israel, like most industrialized countries, is very cautious about letting residents of the third world come to visit because of the fear that they might overstay their tourist visas and become illegal residents.

Having been frustrated by the Israeli bureaucracy on many occasions, I couldn't imagine there was much advice I could offer my African correspondent... except to be politely persistent.

As weeks turned to months and the target date for his Israeli vacation grew near, I occasionally asked how his request for a visa was going, but the news was always the same.

Finally, less than a week before his scheduled vacation he sent me a frustrated email with the subject line:  "They obviously don't want me there", and the opening line, "Hi David,  Tomorrow marks the last day I try to ever travel to Israel... "

While I couldn't fault the Israeli foreign ministry for exercising caution with granting entry to residents of developing countries, I knew this guy!  Even though we'd never met or spoken on the phone, I knew more about this young man than I knew about most of my neighbors! 

I wrote back asking him to email me his passport info, proof of medical insurance and the name / contact info of the officer he'd been dealing with at the Israeli Consulate in Nairobi.  I figured maybe it would help if they knew he had a contact in Israel who could vouch for his character.

After he'd sent back the information I'd asked for, I dashed off a quick email to the Consular staff worker explaining how I knew this young man and expressing my certainty that he wanted to come for an innocent tourist visit... not to stay as an illegal worker or refugee.

Within an hour I received a phone call from the Consular officer in Nairobi.  She was all business and reminded me a lot of those serious young men and women you encounter when getting on line at the El Al counter in the airport.  She asked me about a dozen questions about how long I'd known my African correspondent and what I really knew about him.  She asked me where he worked, what he did for a living, where he lived... and as I answered each question I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I have plenty of local friends for whom I probably couldn't give as thorough an accounting.

When the interrogation session was nearly over she had just one more question for me... a question that took everything out of the realm of the theoretical:

She asked me if I would be willing to sign an official document declaring that I was personally inviting this young man to Israel and that I would be legally responsible for him during his entire visit... including making sure he returned to his home country before his visa expired.

Up until that point we'd been chatting cordially and near the end, we even joked a bit about the weather here and there.  But hearing this last question kind of wiped the smile off my face.  You see, there is a big difference between being an anonymous big shot, telling a stranger to take the word of another stranger, and being asked to put pen to paper and make things very up-close-and-personal... and legal.

After a moment of silence on the phone I told her to email me the form and that I'd look at it.  But before I hung up I asked her how important this form would be in the visa process for my friend.  Her answer cut right to the point:  "If you sign the form I will issue him a tourist visa.  If you don't, I won't."

Within seconds the form landed in my email in-box and I printed it out so I could read it more carefully.  I even showed it to a friend who is an attorney to ask some 'what if...' questions.  But the bottom line was that I was being asked to take legal responsibility for someone who I knew only theoretically.

To be continued tomorrow...

[but in the mean time, I'm curious what you would do in my place]

Posted by David Bogner on March 31, 2008 | Permalink

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Hi David,

The question is: What sort of sanctions are you facing if the young defaults and stays in Israel illegaly. I don't think there is more than a fee at most (how high) since this happens all the time to people bringing in foreign workers. If the "importer's" responsibility would be sanctioned in a strict way it would probably not be worthwhile for them to bring in foreign workers.

I would probably sign and invite the young man to my home.

Posted by: Ruth | Mar 31, 2008 2:14:41 PM

Oh David, you know how to hook your readers! I rely on your instinct, and so should you. If the young man was not kosher, you'd have noticed it by now.

I hope the outcome is as Ruth said.

Posted by: Lila | Mar 31, 2008 2:40:52 PM

I would sign the forms. If you want to be the most protected, only sign them under the condition that you meet this man at the airport and stay with him throughout the trip. Here is the thing, Israel usually appears stronger on their visa issues than they truly are. As a חובש for MDA, I have encountered many illegal residents and, even though the government knows of their existence and even where they live, they do nothing. Actually, come to think of it, I was technically an illegal resident working for MDA! I am not an Israeli citizen and my visa was only for three months but I stayed for a full year. The only question I ever got was when I left and that was when are you coming back.

Posted by: Seth | Mar 31, 2008 2:43:41 PM

Sorry, I'll be the grump. I'm not saying not to sign the papers, but remember that it's not like it's unheard of for a person to take years to cultivate a relationship for the purpose of exploiting it. (Just think of the girl that was quite certain that the love of her life would never, ever, put a bomb in her bags as she got on an El Al flight. Worse case scenario, sure, but isn't that what we need to think of?)

Besides, I'm more the Rick Blaine type. (Of course, even he stuck his neck out for Ingrid Bergman.)

Again, I'm not saying don't sign. I'm just not naturally the trusting type.

Posted by: dfb1968 | Mar 31, 2008 3:25:24 PM

Way to leave us hanging... sigh.
My gut reaction is that you should sign and invite him home, but I did have a fleeting thought that he might have set you up exactly for his purpose. But I'm definitely more trusting and assume more good from people than bad, so I can't wait to hear the end of this story.

Posted by: val | Mar 31, 2008 3:42:30 PM

The only advice I can offer is to listen to your instinct. At times, those feelings are the best indicator of any doubts you may have.

Posted by: shira0607 | Mar 31, 2008 3:56:23 PM

I thought the same thing as dfb1968. The slim possibility that you just never know is what makes this such a big responsibility. If you live your life as a trusting person with a big heart, follow your heart and almost definitely you'll be giving this person an incredible gift. If the unthinkable happens...then at least you were a good person and were trying to do something good for this person and for Israel.

Posted by: Benji Lovitt | Mar 31, 2008 4:05:23 PM

Have you ever spoken with the guy on the phone? I would chat with him and see what your "gut" tells you. Make him understand the risk you're taking and ask for his promise of good behavior. Get some personally identifying info from him. Then sign the form.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Mar 31, 2008 4:13:55 PM

Oh--very tough one. I honestly do not know what I would do. I think talking with him on the phone would be a good idea.

One point to consider is whether there any other reason why this guy may have been turned down in Kenya-something apart from him being from a third world country (ie security risk)?

I presume (hope) that were that the case, the consular official would not even be giving you the option of signing for the guy.

Well, if he does come, would be happy to invite him for dinner in T"A.

Posted by: Gila | Mar 31, 2008 4:46:11 PM

There have been a couple of times in my life when I did the nice thing to help someone (monetarily), and then found out that I'd been taken advantage of.

It sucks, but I don't regret being the sort of person who helps other people. I figure that the money will come back to me somehow in the natural turning of the world. And the ones who took advantage of me will have their own sort of reckoning.

This isn't to say that I'll knee-jerk stick my neck out for anyone. But if you are aware of the risks, and your gut is telling you that it's OK, then I say sign the papers. It's more important for you, yourself, to be someone who makes good things happen than to be someone who is never, ever taken advantage of.

Posted by: Sarah | Mar 31, 2008 5:15:44 PM

I assume that the reader is reading along with the rest of us. I am sorry to say that I am a bit skeptical about this. I understand and agree with going with your gut, but at the same time....

What are the potential consequences for you if things go south. Not saying not to do it, just consider the various angles.

Not very helpful, but...

Posted by: Jack | Mar 31, 2008 7:13:58 PM

I'm with Bean & Gila. Call the guy up. I may be off base here, but I would trust your instincts over most others. If you think he's kosher, he probably is. But definitely give him a call.

Having said that, just remember the line from Allan Sherman - "Good advice is free and it's worth twice the price." :)

Posted by: psachya | Mar 31, 2008 7:49:01 PM

I agree that you should call him up and speak with him voice-to-voice. In my opinion, a person's voice can tell you a lot about him.

Posted by: Rahel | Mar 31, 2008 9:09:04 PM

Exercise caution Trep! This is Israel and you hardly know this person (1’s and 0’s are not good enough).

Posted by: Nadav | Mar 31, 2008 9:19:06 PM

I'm sure you would get the measure of him if you called him. I would encourage you to go ahead. Over the centuries, we have been taught and encouraged to give hospitality and welcome the stranger. I think G_d would smile if you took the "risk".

Posted by: Noa | Mar 31, 2008 9:35:52 PM

Will this young African reader stop reading your blog if he doesn’t go to Israel? No!
Will the strong ties between Israel and Kenya be severed if this young man does not visit Israel? No!

Looks to me, like you have nothing to lose. :-)

Posted by: Duke | Mar 31, 2008 9:43:45 PM

I love it when you post these personal dilemmas. I happen to be a trusting soul, and usually my instincts are right. You have enough experience in this world to trust yours as well. Caution is healthy, but after you've explored all angles, if your instinct says go for it, then do so.

BTW, what does Zehava have to say about this? As good as your instincts are, hers are probably better. :-)

Posted by: Baila | Mar 31, 2008 10:48:23 PM

Cardinal rule in life...Never sign anything if you can help it.

--too many lawyers in my family

Posted by: G | Mar 31, 2008 11:01:04 PM

The question can only be answered by doing a cost benefit analysis.
Benefit: If his life was endangered, you would be right to assume the greatest risk to save him. If he were coming on a lark and a caprice, you shouldn't risk much at all.
Cost: On the other end, you have to assess your risk. You clearly know him well enough to risk some financial liability; you definitely do not know him well enough to marry him.

Here, it seems that he is a member of that rare and precious breed, the philo-semites. He deserves recognition for that alone. Yours, it seems, is the personal face he has given the abstract "Israeli Jew." And your exposure is most likely be a matter of time and money. I would sign for him.

Posted by: Barzilai | Mar 31, 2008 11:09:46 PM

Like most people here, I believe that after three years you can trust your instincts. I have met (although I have not given them hospitality, at least not right away) two people I first met on the net and haven't been disappointed.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Mar 31, 2008 11:14:54 PM

ah...this is interesting fun. Tho I am quite sure you have already made a decision - and have communicated such to your friend (and so he is playing along)
While I have no advice, I have a feeling you've signed the document.

Posted by: weese | Mar 31, 2008 11:32:29 PM

You've signed it.
There is risk in everything it is just how much. Let us know what he thinks of his trip.

Posted by: Craig | Apr 1, 2008 12:11:01 AM

I would sign it. I have signed a similar document to help a friend come into Australia after he had huge problems trying to get a tourist visa. In my experience it really is the only way he will ever get into a developed country like Israel, so you're giving him the gift of a lifetime. If he's at all a decent person he won't let you down.

Posted by: zemirah | Apr 1, 2008 1:19:49 AM

David, go with your gut instincts and if it feels ok it most probably is. Besides, I am sure security will check him out anyway and the burden of responsibility will not entirely fall on your shoulders should something
G-d forbiid bad happen

Posted by: ben | Apr 1, 2008 2:00:18 AM

Listen to your heart - he's the real thing - and think how bad it would be for Israel to have him go away thinking that Israel is treating him so shabbily. It would be a kiddush ha-shem.

Posted by: krg | Apr 1, 2008 5:03:36 AM

nonononononononononono

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Apr 1, 2008 5:12:20 AM

Hmm... I agree with a lot of the other posters, call him first, consult Zahava and then do what your gut tells you. He certainly sounds kosher to me, but it's filtered secondhand thru this post so what do I know. :) If it was me, I'd probably sign the thing, but I'm a sucker for emotional pleas so don't take my example for anything...

Posted by: Chantyshira | Apr 1, 2008 5:39:31 AM

That's a tough call. I am usually the kind of person who errs on the side of caution... I guess in the end it all comes down to how much you feel you can trust him.

Posted by: Irina | Apr 1, 2008 5:59:07 AM

Davd -- Though your post doesn't keep me in suspense (I know the person in question as well :) -- I tip my hat to you for dealing with this question!

Posted by: Jameel @ The Muqata | Apr 1, 2008 10:34:41 AM

If the guy's been putting so much effort into this, I'd say that it's not because he wants a job washing dishes in Tel Aviv. All a question of what damage could be done.

Posted by: asher | Apr 1, 2008 10:54:39 AM

A wise man once said to me, "I'd rather be a naive idealist than a harsh pragmatist."

Posted by: ilan | Apr 1, 2008 11:58:10 AM

I can't give you any advice here, but your post made me wonder - if American non-Jews were asked to do the same thing in the late thirties and forties for Jews living in Europe, would they have signed (knowing full well that there was a risk that the Jews would stay in America and not leave)?

Posted by: westbankmama | Apr 1, 2008 12:45:34 PM

To westbankmama,

A great question. But, why limit your question to American non-Jews? I think there's good evidence that some American Jews would have refused to sign.

Posted by: dfb1968 | Apr 1, 2008 1:09:34 PM

I am a first time reader, and your story got me hooked. I will definitely be back to read more.

I can not give you an answer for your dilemma. My only question is, and it honestly has no bearing on this article, but lets just say that your African Correspondent did in fact plot this long in advance, and was only coming to Israel with the intent to stay illegally. Is it that bad?

Would he, showing his love for the country already, not be a better citizen, even if illegally, than half of the Jew Hating Israel born citizens that we read about constantly in the Israeli Papers?

Posted by: STiHunter | Apr 1, 2008 7:40:42 PM

I suspect that I agree you had already decided when you wrote this post... and that you were deliberately a bit mysterious in writing it to build suspense.

Specifically, how long you'd been corresponding with this fellow, and how well you know him - compared to some of your IRL friends! While I admit that fraudulent approaches are well known on the internet (I should know), maintaining a fake relationship for three years before making the play is almost unheard of, and being convincing for three years with no payoff in the meantime is far too much work for almost any criminal. In other words, assuming your life and work are not especially security-sensitive, the risk seems small.

Posted by: hiraethin | Apr 2, 2008 5:45:52 AM

"I knew this guy!"

no you don't.

Posted by: Lion of Zion | Apr 2, 2008 7:47:32 AM

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