Following murders, Israelis ask if immigration laws too lax

Peace talk efforts notwithstanding, Israelis have been transfixed by a series of high-profile violent crimes committed by two immigrants. Critics question if the door is open too wide to Jews wanting to live in Israel.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Ultra-Orthodox West Bank settler Jack Teitel appears in a court in Petah Tikva, Israel, Wednesday. Israel's Shin Bet security service says that Mr. Teitel is behind a 12-year campaign of high-profile hate crimes against Arabs, peace activists and a breakaway Jewish sect.
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Intense diplomatic efforts aimed at resurrecting peace talks notwithstanding, the issue currently transfixing Israelis is how to come to grips with a series of high-profile, deeply violent crimes committed by immigrants.

In the past week, the arrests of two émigrés accused of multiple murders have pressed Israelis to rethink national priorities and relatively lax immigration laws.

In both cases, the alleged perpetrators had previous records in their countries of origin – Russia and the United States – one of them the subject of an open extradition request that Israel never fulfilled.

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First came the news late last week of the arrest of Yaacov (Jack) Teitel, an immigrant from Florida who'd been investigated for murder in the past in the US. Mr. Teitel is accused of the murders of two Palestinians, two Israeli policemen, and a string of other hate crimes, including letter-bomb attacks that targeted left-wing intellectuals and Messianic Jews.

This week, police said Russian immigrant Damian Karlik had confessed to the massacre last month of six members of the same family, including two grandparents, two parents, and two children under the age of 3. But Karlik's lawyer now says he was forced into the confession after being tortured.

Is the door open too wide?

The murders have not only shocked the nation, but also prompted Israelis to ask whether the seemingly wide-open doors to Israeli citizenship – available to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent – has made it too easy for those with a deviant past to find refuge here.

"I don't want Israel to be a shelter for criminals," says Meir Sheetrit, a member of Knesset from Kadima, the leading opposition party in Israel's parliament. "In principle, today the Law of Return states that every Jew has the right to come to Israel, without any checks of any sort." Applicants are asked to sign an affidavit affirming to a clean record, but in reality, he says, no checks are made.

Mr. Sheetrit, a former minister of Justice as well as Interior minister, has for several years been working on a proposal for a citizenship law that would institute a five-year naturalization process. The need for such a law, he says, has only been underscored by the events of the past week.

"After 60 years of statehood, immigrants are not knocking on the doors every day," Sheetrit says. "With this citizenship law, anyone can come, but first they must live here for five years. In that time, we'll check that he's learned Hebrew and the laws of living in a democracy, and must swear his loyalty to the state of Israel like one does in every other country in the world," he says. "And, in that period, we'll be able to check whether the applicant has a criminal record."

Granted citizenship despite red flags

The details of the two alleged murderers' cases have been front-page stories for days, and not just for their gruesome details. Teitel was given Israeli citizenship even though he'd already been questioned by the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security agency, for the two murders of Palestinians, and had been investigated in the US as well.

Karlik, who stabbed to death six members of the Oshrenko family in their home last month in apparent revenge for being fired by restaurateur Dmitri Oshrenko, was wanted in connection to a robbery in his native Russia. Authorities in Moscow asked for his extradition two years ago, but Israel hadn't yet acted on it, saying they were waiting for evidence.

"There were murders here that could have been prevented, if it had been dealt with differently, said David Norodsky, a lawyer connected with the case, in an Israel Radio interview.

Aside from the question of immigrant criminals, Karlik's deed was particularly appalling because it involved the murder of a toddler and an infant. The case follows a handful of other grisly murders of children in the past two years.

Some Israeli politicians have reacted by proposing a law allowing for the death penalty in the cases of murdering a child under age 13. The Jerusalem Post newspaper criticized that move in an editorial, saying that it is "far easier for politicians to call for the death penalty than to undertake the hard slog of reforming the country's police, criminal justice, and penal systems."

One of the authors of the death penalty proposal, parliamentarian Carmel Shama from the ruling Likud party, says he only wants to give judges the ability to impose much stiffer sentences. As of now, he says, most convicted murderers only serve up to 15 years, and then are released.

"It's not that we automatically want the death penalty for child-killers. It's just to give the judge an option in very extreme cases, when there is no doubt the man did the crime. Or, the judge should be able to give a life sentence with no chance of parole," Mr. Shama says. "People are very shocked at the amount of violent crime against children in our country, and its obvious now that there is a lot of support for this proposal."

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