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Keeping the malls safe?

Young Israelis denied U.S. tourist visas; local relatives react with disbelief

Geoffrey Lewis’s son is getting married this weekend.

The South African-born Mr. Lewis and his wife, Karen, live in Tenafly, where his three children, Larry, Kira, and Amy, grew up; but his family, dispersed by the Holocaust and freed to follow opportunities where they led, sprawls across four continents.

Because a wedding is a celebration not only of romantic love but also of family, it’s not just about the couple, but about their roots, and about the hope for the eventual flowering of their love into more branches on the family tree.

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Larry Lewis and Corina Platon are getting married this weekend; some Israeli cousins will not be there because they could not get U.S. tourist visas. Geoffrey Lewis

That means that it’s also a reunion. Everyone is invited, and everyone who can travel makes the pilgrimage; the chuppah is symbolic not only of the home the couple will create but also of the extended family itself.

But it’s not so easy.

Travelers need documents to enter countries not their own. Israelis need visas to enter the United States. Israelis who want to come here for family celebrations need tourist visas.

The U. S. State Department has been denying tourist visas to Israelis – particularly young ones -at unusually high rates. According to the department’s own figures, the refusal rate was 9.7 percent last year; in 2007, it was 2.5 percent. In 2013, 32 percent of 21- to 26-year-old Israelis were refused visas. Refusal rates for would-be visitors from other countries are not nearly as high.

The State Department has acknowledged the problem and said it would try to fix it; many politicians, including New York Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Nita Lowey, are on it.

But action has not followed talk.

Mr. Lewis is livid. Three of his Israeli nieces and nephews will not be at the wedding. They were not able to get tourist visas.

There seem to be two overall problems. One is a fear that Israelis might be spies – a high number of Israeli intelligence officers have been denied entry. The other, the issue that disrupted Mr. Lewis’s relatives’ trip, is a fear that young Israelis are storming in to take over all the kiosks in all the malls from coast to coast, a Dead Sea-product-pushing invasion.

That is not true, Mr. Lewis said.

“It’s bizarre,” he continued. Four months before the wedding, his young relatives applied to the Israeli embassy in Tel Aviv for visas. “I sent them copies of the wedding invitation – proof that it will be held at the New York Botanical Gardens, which we had printed early just for this reason – and a letter from me, offering to put up a substantial financial bond that I was prepared to forfeit if these three young Israelis overstayed their visas.”

They applied four times. “Not only were the visas denied the first time, they were denied the second time, the third time, and finally the fourth time,” Mr. Lewis said. “Each time, the United States embassy was more than happy to take the $170 per person application fee.

“If the United States embassy is that short of money to cover their operating costs, ask for donations from the public at large. Don’t ask young Israelis to pay fees for applications you are going to deny in any event.”

As a result of the refusal, he continued, “Some smug manager at the United States embassy will have the thrill of having met a denial quota to meet his superiors’ demands, and one family won’t be able to celebrate another chapter in the circle of life together.”

And the lack of common sense – of seichel, as he put it – also angers him. “You’ve got 10 people from Israel traveling together for a wedding, and then, at the end of the wedding, you really think three of them are going to slip off and work at a mall?”

Dalia Sakai of Paramus had a similar experience.

She does understand the problem, she said. “I know a lot of kids who come here and stay here, and it isn’t right,” she said. But her 21-year-old cousin was denied a visa, and that is wrong too, she feels.

“She tried twice, once this year and once last year,” Ms. Sakai said. “The American person who interviewed her looked at her and said, ‘I’m so sorry. If you were married, you’d be able to get a visa.’

“I emailed a note saying that I’m a teacher, I’m off for the summer, and I hoped that my cousin could come to America and spend time with me and my family. It didn’t help.

“And she does have a job, and the people there, at her job, wrote a note saying that we are allowing her to leave for six weeks, and we expect her back. That didn’t help either.”

“My daughter is turning 21 this summer. The two of them wanted to spend time together, do things together. I never thought it would be a problem. I always have cousins, uncles, and aunts come over all the time. It never was a problem.

“America’s doors should be open,” Ms. Sakai said.

The United States offers a visa waiver program allowing citizens of countries accepted into the program to enter without a tourist visa. Israel is not part of the program; there is a working group that has convened to examine the possibility that it might be included, but there are some problems that must be overcome first, according to Julia Frifeld, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. One is the mall situation; the other is U.S. allegations that Israel discriminates against Arab-Americans in their attempts to visit Israel.

According to Shahar Azani, the spokesperson for Israel’s consulate general in New York, “We are in the process of negotiations with the United States to include Israel in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Until that happens, Israelis are dependent on decisions made by the Consular Department of the U.S. Department of State to be issued a visa, similar to citizens of other countries around the world.”

That is cold comfort to Mr. Lewis.

“We are small fry, but this is the kind of thing that leads people to devalue what the government does,” he said. “It’s not asking the government to pay for anything. It is just asking the government to do what we pay our taxes to do – and that’s to facilitate things.”

Last year, he said, his older daughter married an Israeli. The couple lives in New York, but the wedding was in Israel. Everyone was able to go. “It was fantastic.

“My younger daughter at this point has no intention of getting married any time soon,” he continued. “But when she does, I’ll tell her not to get married in this country.”

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