Michal Cotler-Wunsh
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Alone in a pandemic: Immigrants in Israel need to see loved ones

The corona restrictions on visits from abroad are too narrow and too specific for the varied needs of olim. I'm working to change that.
We cannot ask those who emigrated here to choose between their home and their family (iStock)

Since becoming a Member of Knesset mid-June, I have received countless requests from olim – immigrants – desperate to have their family members and loved ones enter Israel for vital reasons, ranging from helping a sick relative and supporting children, parents, grandchildren, and more. In some cases, the need to enter might be to see a loved one for their last moments of life, while in others, for the birth of a new grandchild. These cases have grown exponentially alongside the COVID-19 crisis, and demand that we as legislators acknowledge and address the needs and challenges of olim, not only upon their arrival but as citizens deserving of equal rights and opportunities.

Together with the Immigration, Integration, and Diaspora Affairs Committee Chair, we have worked to expand the “exception” criteria, which once only included weddings, funerals and bar/bat mitzvah celebrations and now also includes births and visits from the parents of Lone Soldiers and b’not sherut. In many cases, I am able to help individual olim and their family members through the challenging bureaucratic process, with support of the dedicated staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But that’s only if their case falls into one of the specific categories or falls under the exceptions on humanitarian grounds. However, in many others, the current policies are too specific or not considered exceptional, and fail to enable us to help all that need and request.

Just last week on Aliyah Day, we recognized olim, who leave their families and loved ones behind in order to realize the Zionist dream and build a life in Israel. In these discussions, as I regularly do, I raised the need to enable and assist new immigrants in their integration into Israeli society. Always, and at this time in particular, this includes recognizing the emotional and mental health challenges that accompany being alone in a foreign country at a time of uncertainty, without the equal ability of all Israelis to see family.

This commitment culminated in the discussion held last week at the Immigration, Integration, and Diaspora Affairs Committee, bringing together bipartisan Members of Knesset and representatives of the Immigration Authority in an effort to address the root of this challenge. Throughout the discussion, I highlighted the need for a holistic and transparent policy that will reunite olim with their immediate family members and partners, addressing the long-term reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. I once again called for Israel to follow the examples created by other countries that allow the immediate family members and long-term partners of their citizens to enter the country.

The recommendations of the Committee were more limited than I hoped, but, if accepted, will be better than the current policy, allowing olim that have been here for up to four years visits from immediate family members. The Committee also recommended that released Lone Soldiers and b’not sherut be able to receive visits from their immediate family members for two years following release. I am keenly aware that while this would certainly help select olim, it would still leave many others who are here alone without the option of receiving the support of their loved ones at this challenging time.

The discussion in committee follows my formal question to the Ministry of Interior in the Knesset plenum regarding an expectation of such a policy. To my disappointment at the time, no answer was given. It also follows a request made by myself and fellow Members of Knesset MK Yosef Taib (Shas), MK Evgeny Sova (Yisrael Beitenu), and MK Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid) for urgent discussion in the Internal Affairs Committee. Unfortunately, this request was rejected on the grounds that it was “not urgent” enough, despite its clear urgency and bipartisan support.

After eight months of living with COVID-19 and with no end in sight, it is imperative to create a holistic and transparent policy that will reunite olim with their families and loved ones. We cannot ask those who emigrated here to choose between their home and their family, and must ensure that while the health and safety of society is protected, the equal rights and opportunities for all citizens are not compromised. In addressing the inequities highlighted by this pandemic, we can create a new paradigm with more transparent and holistic, long-term policies, in this context and beyond.

About the Author
The writer is a lawyer, research fellow, and policy and strategy advisor. She served as an MK in Israel’s 23rd Knesset, co-founding the International Bi-Partisan Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism.
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