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Tired of long waits, hefty fees and unexplained rejections, Israelis hope the US will lift visa requirements

TEL AVIV (JTA) — Bar Shelly is hoping that the fourth time’s the charm when it comes to gaining entry into the United States. The 24-year-old first applied for a visa in 2019, shortly after his release from the Israeli military. He tried again in 2021 and 2022 and was refused each time.

People from 40 countries can enter the United States without a visa. But Israelis without other passports must apply for a visa online and then go through an interview at the consulate in Tel Aviv. One goal of their interviews is for consular officials to make sure they are not admitting people who intend to stay illegally after their visa expires.

Shelly brought ample evidence to his interview showing that he planned to return to Israel: his acceptance letter to an Israeli college, an invitation to an upcoming wedding of a close family relative and pay stubs from his job as a tennis coach. Still, he received a rejection letter saying that he did not demonstrate “strong ties overseas that indicate [his] return” from the United States to Israel.

“I brought all the documents and they didn’t even want to look at them,” Shelly told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview last month.

Undeterred, Shelly applied again and still hopes to make it to watch the U.S. Open in early September. He is part of a Hebrew-language Facebook group with several thousand members who have shared their frustrations with the lengthy and strenuous process they were required to undergo in order to visit the United States.

Like many other Israelis, they are hoping that the path will get easier soon, if the United States decides to approve Israel’s request to join its Visa Waiver Program. Acceptance into the program would add the United States to the list of 126 countries that Israelis can enter without a visa — and Israel could get the green light if it meets all of the requirements by Sept. 30.

“This will simplify the bureaucracy and make the process more accessible,” said Yacov Amsalem, whose tourism firm helps facilitate U.S. visas for Israeli customers. About 70% of these visa requests are for tourists seeking to visit the United States.

While Shelly and thousands of others have complained about rejections at the U.S. consulate, they are in a small minority. Some 97% of Israelis who apply for U.S. visas receive them. Still, the Israeli government has made entering the program a priority, endeavoring to satisfy U.S. State Department demands that Palestinian-Americans who travel to Israel will be able to enter the country with the same ease as other U.S. citizens.

Entry into the program may also be a boon for rank-and-file Israelis who have chafed at the visa application’s fees of at least $160, and the months of waiting and uncertainty they often must endure. Some say that entry into the program — and the elimination of the visa application process — will serve as a symbol of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship in addition to removing a bureaucratic headache.

“To say I have no visa is one thing, but to say I was refused a visa is another story,” said Or Amran, a gemstone seller who has demurred from applying for a visa because he fears the stigma of rejection. “I’ve seen all of Asia. It’s funny that I’ve never seen America, which is supposed to be Israel’s greatest friend.”

Amsalem said the 97% visa approval rate left out some people who haven’t even tried to get a visa to the United States. “In the past, there were many people who were afraid of going through the visa process, which includes personal interviews,” he said.

Or Amran says having a visa application rejected comes with a stigma. (Courtesy of Amran)

Some Israelis whose applications have been rejected have complained of demeaning treatment at the consulate. A visa applicant who asked to be identified by the name Veronika, fearing reprisal from U.S. authorities if she uses her real name, paid a visa processing company more than $400 in addition to the $160 fee to secure an expedited appointment. She hoped to fulfill her teenage daughter’s dream of attending summer school in the United States.

The two woke up at 4 a.m. to make the long journey from the northern coastal city of Nahariya to Tel Aviv in time for the appointment. When they got there, Veronika said, they met with an embassy agent who seemed angry even before they entered his booth. Thrown by his demeanor, Veronika said she mixed up the dates of her daughter’s travel and found herself being cross-examined by the clerk.

“I was crying and really scared of him,” she said, adding that she was told the visa request was denied. “We didn’t understand why. I begged for someone to explain but they kicked us out of the consulate like dogs.”

Veronika later received a letter explaining that she had not provided enough proof that her daughter planned on coming back to Israel, despite a letter from her daughter’s school.

“She’s my only child, why would I send her there forever?” she said. “After this, I don’t want to go to America ever. I don’t want to meet people like that ever again.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Israel declined to comment on Veronika’s case or other Israelis’ claims about their experiences at the consulate, characterizing them as private interactions.

Israel’s quest to join the Visa Waiver Program has been at the forefront of U.S.-Israel relations. One of the last sticking points has been easing entry of Palestinian-Americans in and out of Israel. Israel is piloting a program allowing Americans of Palestinian origin to enter the country through Ben Gurion Airport, rather than overland through Jordan and the West Bank, as they are required to now.

Groups of U.S. lawmakers have sent dueling letters on the issue: One urges the U.S. to find a compromise that would allow Israel into the program by the deadline of Sept. 30. The other asks the government to keep Israel out.

To date, Israel has not met the requirements and still has “significant work” to fulfill them within a short timeline, a U.S. embassy spokesperson told JTA. In the coming weeks, Israel would need to prove it could extend “reciprocal privileges to all U.S. citizens and nationals, including allowing Palestinian Americans to travel to and through Israel.”

“We seek equal treatment and freedom to travel for all U.S. citizens regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity,” the spokesperson said.

As the situation has remained uncertain, Amran, the gemstone dealer, went to great lengths to help Israel enter the visa program. He decided to fly back to Israel to vote in the November 2022 election for the Yamina party, which was headed by Ayelet Shaked, because she had worked on legislation aimed at meeting the visa program’s criteria.

But Shaked’s party did not get enough votes to enter Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. According to Amran, his family still makes fun of him for “wasting his vote” on her.

Rubi Segal’s hopes of flying to the United States serving as the sandak, or godfather, at his American nephew’s bris circumcision ceremony over the summer were dashed with the receipt of a letter last month declaring that the U.S. consulate had “adjudicated and refused” his visa application — with no explanation given.

“I’m not able to pull myself out of this depression. Truly. I also don’t understand why it happened. I’m so sad to miss my brother’s [son’s] bris,” Segal said. “I’m the most normal person in the world — there’s no way they think I want to stay there. I have business here, I own a home, a wife and kids, no debt, no criminal record, I just don’t understand the reason.”

Bar Shelly is on his fourth round of visa applications. (Courtesy of Shelly)

Even if Israel is accepted to the Visa Waiver Program, Segal would still need a visa and an interview. The visa waiver will not apply to anyone who has been denied entry.

Other Israelis are in wait-and-see mode, hoping that within months they will be allowed to skip the unpleasant experience at the U.S. consular office on their way to America.

Shay Rimo, 39, never bothered applying for a visa. “I’ve wanted to go for many years but it just never made sense to pay the money — which isn’t a negligible amount — and go through the whole process. So I always pushed it off.”

Rimo’s sister lived with her now-husband in the United States for three years when they were students, but because of the visa process, none of the family ever went to visit them.

“The second it opens up, I’ll go,” Rimo said. “In the meantime, it’s better to just go to Thailand.”

The post Tired of long waits, hefty fees and unexplained rejections, Israelis hope the US will lift visa requirements appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Biden Administration Urges Israel to Tone Down Response to Hezbollah Aggression in Bid to Avert Wider Conflict

Mourners carry a coffin during the funeral of Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan forces who according to Lebanese security sources was killed during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon, in Khirbet Selm, Lebanon, Jan. 9, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

The Biden administration has been pushing the Israeli government to de-escalate hostilities with Hezbollah to prevent a full-scale war from breaking out along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the powerful Iran-backed terrorist group wields significant political and military influence.

In Israel’s north, Hezbollah terrorists have been firing rockets at Israel daily from southern Lebanon since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, leading Israeli forces to strike back. Tensions have been escalating between both sides, fueling concerns that the conflict in Gaza — the Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas, another Iran-backed Islamist terrorist group, to Israel’s south — could escalate into a regional conflict.

More than 80,000 Israelis evacuated Israel’s north in October and have since been unable to return to their homes. The majority of those spent the past eight months residing in hotels in safer areas of the country. The mass displacement has ramped up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a swift resolution to the situation.

The ongoing conflict between both sides escalated on Tuesday when senior Hezbollah commander Taleb Sami Abdullah was killed in an Israeli strike in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah responded by launching over 200 missiles into northern Israel. 

During Abdullah’s funeral, senior Hezbollah official Hachem Saffieddine vowed that the terrorist group would intensify its strikes on Israel. 

“Our response after the martyrdom of Abu Taleb will be to intensify our operations in severity, strength, quantity and quality,” Saffieddine said. “Let the enemy wait for us in the battlefield.”

In Israel, meanwhile, officials have said they prefer a diplomatic solution to the current crisis but are prepared to escalate military action to push Hezbollah back from the border in order to allow internally displaced Israelis to return home. Polling has shown that the majority of the Israeli public wants the military to engage in expanded actions against the Lebanese terrorist group, which is committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Biden administration has been advising Netanyahu against pursuing the idea of a “limited war” against Hezbollah, arguing that it could spark a regional war throughout the Middle East. According to multiple reports, US officials have warned Israel that Iran could dispatch militants from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen into Lebanon to bolster Hezbollah’s effort.

The White House has also expressed concern  that Israeli officials do not have a clear strategy on how to keep the war contained to solely Lebanon. Fear of a broader regional war has intensified the Biden administration’s urgency to finalize a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, which launched the ongoing war in Gaza by slaughtering over 1,200 people throughout southern Israel and kidnapping more than 250 others on Oct. 7.

“We are concerned about an increase in activity in the north. We don’t want this to escalate to a broad regional conflict and we urge de-escalation,” a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters this week.

The Pentagon also released a statement saying that Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin discussed efforts to “de-escalate tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border in the wake of Lebanese Hezbollah’s increased aggression.”

According to multiple reports, Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to US President Joe Biden for energy and investment, will head to Israel on Monday in an effort to temper tensions between the Jewish state and Hezbollah. Hochstein will meet with Netanyahu and Gallant with the goal of swaying them against green-lighting a “limited ground invasion” in Lebanon. Hochstein will reportedly also journey to Beirut to conduct discussions with Lebanese officials.

“There was a lot of work, diplomatic work done behind the scenes by several folks in the US administration, working with regional powers and our allies to try and tamp this down,” Hochstein has said regarding the prospect of a regional war erupting in the Middle East.

Hochstein argued that preventing a large-scale war between Israel and Lebanon requires “active engagement” with both parties and for the public of both countries to “understand the risks” of further escalation. He added that “despite the bravado talk” coming from government officials, Lebanese people do not to go to war with Israel.

“The bottom line is a lot of civilians will die,” Hochstein said.

Despite chest-thumping by Hezbollah leaders, experts believe that the elimination of Abdullah might cause Hezbollah to exercise caution in engaging further with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

The powerful elimination worries Hezbollah members. They now understand that the IDF knows much more about them than we do,” Professor Amatzia Baram told The Jerusalem Post. “Additionally, the operation indicates that Hezbollah’s field security is not airtight and that the organization’s intelligence system has been penetrated to such an extent that we were able to eliminate such an important sector commander. The IDF managed to infiltrate their networks and systems and identify the right people for elimination.”

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Iranian Court Sentences Woman to 18 Years in Prison for Supporting Israel

Iranian protesters carry a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a Yemeni flag as they burn an Israeli flag during an anti-US and anti-British protest in front of the British embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, Jan. 12, 2024. Photo: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Reuters Connect

Fatemeh Sepehri, a prominent Iranian dissident and political prisoner, has been sentenced to an additional 18 and a half years in prison after she publicly expressed support for Israel.

The harsh prison sentence appeared to be at least partly in response to a video clip released on Oct. 16 from Ghaem Hospital in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad in which Sepehri, who suffers from a heart ailment, condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel. Hamas is backed by the Iranian regime, which provides the Palestinian terror group in Gaza with funding, weapons, and training.

“I emphatically declare that the Iranian nation stands in solidarity with the people of Israel,” she said. “I hope [Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks] closes the Islamic Republic’s chapter in history.”


For 45 years, Iranian women have tirelessly battled for their rights, freedom, and advancement. Among them, Fatemeh Sepehri has boldly challenged the ideals of the Islamic Republic. NUFDI proudly awards her the 2024 Humanitarian Award.

— سه خط طلا (@misanthropgirl) March 19, 2024

Although Fatimeh’s court records are unavailable to the public, her brother Asghar Sepehri tweeted details about the sentence. According to her sibling, Fatimeh was sentenced earlier this month by a judge of the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Mashhad to seven years for supporting Israel, another seven years for conspiring against internal security, three years for insulting Iran’s so-called “supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and one year and six months for propaganda against the Islamist regime.

Iran’s rulers regularly call for the destruction of Israel, often referring to the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor” or “the Zionist entity.”

Sepehri was originally arrested in Sept. 2022 following the killing of Mahsa Amini, a young woman whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked nationwide protests against the ruling Islamist regime on an unprecedented scale.

Sepehri’s pro-Israel video was posted after she was temporary released from prison to undergo open-heart surgery. According to her family, Sepehri has been subjected to intense “psychological torture” while in prison. Her brothers, Mohammad-Hossein and Hossein, have also received severe sentences for similar charges: eight years and two years and 11 months, respectively.

In the past, Sepehri has been an outspoken critic of Khamenei and the Islamic Republic more broadly. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported in 2021 that Sepehri said on video that she hoped to see the day when Khamenei would be dragged through the streets and killed like Libya’s late ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

Days after Sepehri received her sentence, Iran released political prisoner Louis Arnaud, a French citizen, on Thursday. Arnaud was arrested in Sept. 2022 as anti-government protests were erupting across Iran. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted shortly after Arnaud’s release, “Louis Arnaud is free. Tomorrow he will be in France after a long incarceration in Iran.”

Louis Arnaut is greeted by Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné at Paris’ Le Bourget Airport following his release from Iran. Photo: Screenshot

Three French nationals remain imprisoned in Iran as political prisoners. French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné posted on social media that securing their release remains a top priority.

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Former ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ Star Patricia Heaton: Every Human Being Should Be Against Antisemitism

One of the billboards erected in partnership between JewBelong and O7C. Photo: Instagram

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton said this week that following the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, it should be a “natural” reaction among all humans to want to combat antisemitism, as well as support the Jewish people and Israel’s right to exist.

The “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle” star, who is a devout Catholic, made the comments during her guest appearance on the NewsNation show “CUOMO,” where she also advocated for Christians to voice solidarity with Jews and Israel after Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people and took 250 hostages during their Oct. 7 onslaught. Heaton began by telling host Chris Cuomo that after the Oct. 7 atrocities, she was “confused by the lack of outcry from the churches.”

“I even posted on Instagram, ‘Did you ever have that thought that if you were in Germany during World War II, you hoped that you would be that good German that helped to hide your Jewish neighbors? Well, today you have that opportunity,’” she added.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton founded a nonprofit called the Oct. 7 Coalition (O7C) to urge Christians to be visibly outspoken against antisemitism, and in support of Jews and Israel’s right to exist. Heaton’s O7C has since teamed up with the nonprofit JewBelong to launch a nationwide billboard campaign to raise awareness about antisemitism in the US.

Talking about why she wanted to get involved in rallying support for Israel and Jewish communities facing a rise in antisemitism in the US since the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton said, “I think if you’re a human being, that should be your natural response to what we saw.” When asked about how people in the entertainment industry have reacted to her avid pro-Israel stance, she said Jewish friends in the business have called her “brave and courageous.”

“[But] I just think this is just a normal human reaction,” she said. “I have heard ‘We have projects we have to promote. We don’t want to bring politics into it.’ I guess if someone spent 50 or 100 million on a movie, they don’t want to introduce this subject matter and I guess you can understand that. But generally speaking I think Hollywood could do more to support our Jewish community.”

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