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Israel Travel May Not Be Hazardous to Your Life — Just Your Life Insurance

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As a young, newly married professional with a baby daughter, Adam Segal decided to take out a life insurance policy.

A senior associate at the Washington public-relations firm of Rabinowitz Media and a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, Segal, 26, figured his youth and good health made him a routine candidate.

In October he applied for life insurance from Fidelity Investments. In the process, he was asked if he had recently traveled abroad or planned to do so.

Segal wrote that he and his wife had visited Israel on their honeymoon at the end of 2002.

In early November, a Fidelity senior manager notified Segal that his application had been denied "due to past travel to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv."

It turns out Fidelity will not insure anyone who recently has visited a country where the U.S. State Department has a travel advisory, or who plans to do so soon, spokesman Vincent Laporchio told JTA.

Fidelity isn’t alone: Some other leading insurance providers also refuse to sell life insurance to anyone traveling to Israel or any of the 28 areas on the State Department’s advisory list, which includes Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Fidelity’s rejection stunned Segal, who called the policy on Israel "outrageous."

"It sends a sharp political message to any American Jew interested in having short- or long-term financial security for their spouses or children that if they’ve visited Israel, don’t apply."

Indeed, officials of several U.S. Jewish organizations said they had heard recently of American Jews being denied life insurance if they plan to visit Israel in the near future.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella organization of local Jewish community relations councils, has received reports from about a dozen JCRCs over the past year about insurance rejections, according to Ethan Felson, JCPA’s assistant executive director.

This isn’t the first time Israel travel has hampered the ability to secure life insurance.

In 1996, following criticism from several members of Congress and New York state legislators, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company lifted a ban on policies for people who frequently visit Israel or remain there for extended periods.

Today, Felson and other Jewish officials say they can’t object to insurers who deny life insurance policies to those who plan to visit Israel or other U.S.-designated hot spots — but they do object to those that deny policies based on applicants’ past trips.

"As much as we don’t like the situation of prospective travel, that’s a condition of the world scene," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

However, Foxman said, "I find the case of Fidelity to be out of bounds." He asked, "What if I took my grandchild for a Bar Mitzvah to Israel? Based on that they don’t insure me? That is so susceptible to abuse."

Fidelity’s spokesman defended the policy of considering both past and future travel.

Fidelity will not sell a life insurance policy to anyone who has visited a country on the State Department’s watch list in the past two years, nor will the company cover anyone who plans to travel to those places in the next two years.

"Life insurance underwriting is an assessment of risk," Laporchio said. "Just as health and lifestyles are important to review, travel in the past two years can be an indication of possible future travel."

Other insurers maintain less restrictive policies. Allstate won’t cover those planning to travel to a country where the State Department has a travel advisory but doesn’t look at past travel, spokeswoman Rebecca Hirsch said.

"This is not a country thing, it’s more about risk assessment," she said.

Allstate would review the policy of someone who had said, when they applied, that they had no plans to travel to Israel but then did so within two years, Hirsch said.

"As long as you were truthful on the application — I didn’t plan to travel to Israel, and you go over there and something happens to you — it would be paid out to your beneficiaries," she said.

Other leading insurers, such as TIAA-CREF and State Farm, said they deny life insurance to those planning to visit any country on the watch list.

Ironically, the risk of being harmed while visiting Israel remains comparatively low.

Average life expectancy in Israel is 78 years, compared to 77 in the United States. And even in the wake of the Palestinian intifada, deaths from accidental injury were about 11 per 100,000 in Israel in 2002, compared to 17 per 100,000 in the United States.

Still, death from terrorism rose to nearly 50 per million people in Israel in 2002, about five times the U.S. rate.

Allen Hixon, a managing consultant for State Farm, said the company’s policy is intended to prevent people from using life insurance like a travel insurance policy.

"When people make plans to travel to hazardous areas, they tend to become more life-insurance conscious," he said.

If an applicant sought an expensive policy shortly before traveling to a high-risk country, they would be rejected, he said, but State Farm wouldn’t deny coverage if someone went to Israel unexpectedly.

Such policies do not single out Israel and thus are not discriminatory, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"People are not not going to go to Israel because of it," he said.

The JCPA’s Felson agreed. "It’s not in the nature of an insurance company to make a financial investment in a political statement," he said. "They’re led more by actuarial tables than editorial columns."

Felson urged Jews who have been denied life insurance because they plan to visit Israel to "shop around." Eventually they’ll find a company willing to underwrite them, he said.

"This is a problem the free markets will hopefully deal with, rather than a regulatory or legislative fix," Felson said.

But some lawmakers are taking note of the insurance companies’ policies. Among them is the speaker of the New York state assembly, Sheldon Silver, who urged MetLife to lift its ban eight years ago.

"The speaker would be concerned about the practice, and we will be looking into the matter," spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee said.

The Orthodox Union led the battle against MetLife in 1996 when Menno Ratzker, an O.U. board member, was denied life insurance because he frequently visited Israel and remained there longer than two weeks.

Silver and then-Assemblyman Jules Polonetsky proposed legislation that insurance companies not take travel into account when determining coverage. Shortly afterward, MetLife lifted its ban.

Today, MetLife spokeswoman Holly Sheffer said, the company provides life insurance to Israel travelers.

Segal, meanwhile, said he is seeking life insurance through other companies, though he said one firm already was asking why Fidelity rejected him.

"This is a knee-jerk response to increased anti-Semitism, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and other factors that contribute to a perception outside the Jewish community that it’s not safe to visit Israel under any circumstances," he said.

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