It has been over a year since Israel first shut her borders to foreigners at the start of the pandemic. As the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to mutate and evolve, countries around the world are following Israel’s lead, pulling up the drawbridges and lowering the portcullises, shutting their airports and solidifying their borders. In the United Kingdom where I reside, it is now illegal to travel outside the country without a very specific ‘reasonable excuse’.
Apart from the obvious discomfort of not being able to leave the little island I find myself on, this phenomenon has solidified an internal challenge which began tapping at my consciousness when Israel first held up the ‘no entry’ sign all those months ago:
Choose your home.
“Everyone has the right to a nationality.” Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that every individual has the right to a place in a nation. No matter how bad the pandemic gets, no matter how slow the trickle of international travel becomes, no matter how impermeable borders around the world grow, you will always be able to return to the country you call home.
In the pre-COVID era, this was merely a theoretical concept. After all, we could hop between countries with ease. We could pack our bags and be in Israel within a matter of hours. With the right visa, we could even stay for years on end, returning to England when the time felt right. Many British Jews had the wonderful luxury of feeling completely at home both in the country of their birth, as well as in the country of their people’s heritage, enjoying the best of both worlds.
When the spectre of anti-Semitism loomed yet again, British Jews comforted themselves in the knowledge that if things got too bad, a safe haven was waiting for them – just a plane ride away. “At the right time”, “We can’t wait to retire there”, “We’ll be the first on the plane when Mashiach arrives” would be the stock responses when chat around the Shabbat table turned to aliya. What a luxury it was to feel that Israel would be waiting for when we were ready. What a privilege it was to have a foot in two doors.
The current situation has given me pause for thought. It has become clear that when things get tough, you have only one home. A single country which will take responsibility for your safety and to which you can return at any time, no questions asked. Unfettered access to the Land we feel so connected to, which once seemed like a fundamental right for all Jews worldwide, is now a privilege for those who had the courage to throw their hat into the ring and made that Land their home.
I have no quarrel with Jews who feel that their home is not Israel, who are comfortable and secure in another corner of the world. I myself live happily and proudly in the UK and appreciate the unparalleled protections and opportunities I enjoy as a citizen here. We must also be mindful of the 4-10 million people around the world who are truly stateless. Being able to call any country their home is a right they can only hope to reclaim.
Yet, for those of us who dream of aliya, who feel our destiny is somehow entwined with that of the Jewish homeland, that there is a spiritual and national calling drawing us in, the stakes seem just that little bit higher now. Choose your home. Would you like to be viewed by the Jewish State as a foreigner or a citizen? When the next crisis hits and we are told to ‘Stay at Home’, where will that be?