Excuse me, I live here

Let’s be clear — I am not suffering.  I, my wife, and four children are among the dozens, perhaps hundreds of Israelis wanting but unable to return home due to the government-imposed closure of the airport. This post is not about how difficult it is for us; we are blessed to have family who have welcomed us to stay with them for however long it takes, we continue to be able to cover our bills, and our children are managing to keep up with their schoolwork as well as we could expect. Instead, this post is my reflection on the power of the Israeli government that can simply decide to close its borders to its own citizens for weeks at a time.

As background, after my wife and I received a second vaccine dose, we were privileged to be able to bring our family to the United States.  Part of the trip included vacationing with cousins whom, like the rest of world, we had not seen in ages.  We also were excited to spend some time with my wife’s 94-year old grandmother who had recently completed her vaccination cycle.  We legally purchased the tickets; we kept our kids home from school for close to two weeks (for good reason — both of our kids’ classes were put in quarantine the week our kids were kept home); and we made accommodations in the United States to have as Covid-safe of a trip as possible under the circumstances.

We also understood that there was a certain level of risk intrinsic to leaving Israel. Should anyone in our family test positive for Covid-19, it could take a while to get back home.

A risk that we did not anticipate was the Israeli government’s decision to shut down all air travel for weeks. I typically regard myself as something of a coronavirus hawk, enthusiastically maintaining masking and social distancing practices for myself and my family.  I know that I am strict because, through the grapevine, I discovered that I had earned the nickname “the warden.” I have also largely supported some restrictive government policies aimed at containing the spread of the virus — of course some of the measures have not been effective, but some failures were understandable given the constantly shifting data on the ground.

That goodwill toward the travel ban was quickly overshadowed by resentment, based on what was going on in Israel.  As I am restricted from returning to my home—despite having two vaccines, negative coronavirus tests, and an effective quarantine plan when we return—Israel as a country has done everything it can to resist any improvement in COVID-19 infections.  Government meetings about the lockdown were postponed; ultra-Orthodox funerals were attended by thousands of unmasked participants in packed crowds; left-wing protests were similarly large and dense; and enforcement of existing virus rules was weak and inconsistent.

And wouldn’t you know, despite weeks of lockdown, countless businesses being shuttered and wrecked beyond repair, children being home from school, and millions of law-abiding and cautious citizens doing their best to get vaccinated — the infection rates remain high, leading to an extension of the lockdown and border closure.

I can even accept that there can exist such extreme circumstances that my right to get to my own home — or business owners to operate their businesses in order to feed their families — would be suspended. But one wonders whether the justification of not bringing in the British, South African, or fill-in-the-blank strain, or the argument that hospitals are on the brink of collapse, reasonably meet that threshold.

One way that may be easier to think about it is with the following game. Here is the beginning of the sentence:

If the situation in Israel is so dire, then…

How would you complete this sentence?  Here are a few suggestions I came up with.

the weekly protests with thousands of people should have been stopped months ago.

…the police shouldn’t just throw up their hands in the face of mass funeral processions in ultra-Orthodox communities.

…enforcement of the law in hotspots should be higher.

…cabinet meetings should not devolve into passive aggressive one-upmanship and subtle insults about going to hairdressers.

At the time of this writing, after two weeks banning entry to my own home, the government has now issued a set of guidelines allowing citizens to return.  As one might expect by now from the way new rules are rolled out, the joke of it all is that although the ban has been lifted, the government has yet to authorize any commercial flights to enter the country.  However, once that small detail gets worked out, as of now, they require all returning passengers to quarantine in the government-run hotels.  According to unofficial reports, exemptions from this requirement can be granted by a committee in the airport.

Practically, for a family like mine, this makes returning home impossible for the foreseeable future.  Understandably, the rule in those hotels is that guests are not allowed to leave their rooms for the 10-14 days that they are under quarantine.  As parents, we have to ask ourselves whether it is fair to our four children, aged 5-13 (and one with hyperactive-type ADHD), to keep them in a single hotel room for at least a week and a half.  Locking otherwise healthy young children in a single room for that period, under normal circumstances, would literally be considered child abuse warranting a visit from child protective services.

As a family, we have successfully quarantined before.  We know the routine of groceries delivered to the door, exercise with family dance competitions, schoolwork completed on multiple computers around the home, and, of course, a few tantrums per day for parents and children. These quarantines were challenging, but doable.  Restricting four children to a single room in a hotel is unreasonable and inhumane.

So what’s my point?  Despite the government’s persistent inconsistency, ineptitude, and dysfunction, one thing that has remained is its ability to assert more and more power over the citizens of the country.  They have applied blunt hammer solutions to problems that would be best addressed with flexible instruments, and have outsourced carving out exceptions to a labyrinth of ever-changing bureaucracy.  It is hard to imagine a human right more fundamental than the right to return to one’s own home.  And now, for weeks, the government has interfered with that right for people who pose minimal risk, even as they have refused to enforce measures that would help reduce the spread of the virus in circumstances that threaten much greater risk.

We are seeing a government where personal freedoms that align with the politicians’ political interests are fiercely defended, but those that do not serve their political interests can be disregarded on a whim.  Where, as former MK Dov Lipman wrote, a young woman stranded for days in a foreign airport terminal has to beg a faceless bureaucrat for the right to come home.  That this seems normal and acceptable would have seemed unimaginable not too long ago.

To restate, on a personal level I am not suffering.  My family has a place to stay, good food to eat, wonderful people to spend time with, and no urgent matters that have been severely impacted by this closure.  And I also am aware that this particular problem affects such a small number of people that it is not even a blip on the radar of concerns for the upcoming election.  But as Israel hopefully begins to emerge from the coronavirus nightmare, we can reflect on and reinforce things that worked, and look for ways to change things that didn’t work.  And, put plainly, this didn’t work.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh. He writes and lectures on topics of psychology, mental health, and halacha, and is the author of the upcoming book "Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life." He also co-hosts the Mental Health News Roundup, a weekly online program focusing on contemporary news related to mental health issues.
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