For Diaspora Jews, Israel is not just some country

Did you hear about the following incident?

Close friends of Eliyahu Kay z”l, the new immigrant who was murdered in a terrorist attack in the Old City, arrived here from South Africa during the seven day mourning period to offer their condolences. They landed in Israel on Friday afternoon and at Ben-Gurion Airport they were informed that due to the coronavirus guidelines that had just been updated, they would not be allowed to enter Israel. They were flown back to South Africa, changing planes in Dubai, on Shabbat despite repeated declarations that they were Shabbat observers, but their pleas not to get on the plane fell on deaf ears. “They treated us like criminals,” one of the family friends related. “I told them that this was the first time in my life that I would violate Shabbat, and that it would happen because of the Jewish state.”

Most Israelis did not hear about this incident, but most of the Jews in South Africa did and they were deeply offended.

This was an extreme case but more “typical” cases are happening every day: The Raskas family hosted us once in their home in New Rochelle, New York. This week the agitated father, Michael, was suddenly looking for me. They had made aliyah to Ra’anana and in a few more weeks their daughter Nili would be getting married. Most of their close family members and friends are in New York. Grandparents, uncles, cousins, nephews, and long-time friends. “They are all fully vaccinated, but the gates are closed to them,” Michael said painfully. “Even now, if they were allowed to get on a plane, they would land and stay in isolation until the wedding on their own account. They would take every necessary test and precaution from the moment they landed until the moment they got on a plane back to New York.”

You could hear the insult he had suffered in his voice. It was not as if Denmark would tell me, an Israeli, not to come there now. Denmark is not my home. For many Jews living in the Diaspora, Israel is still their home. It would be possible to check their passports to see how many times they have been here and to make it possible for them to come. It’s possible to check how many relatives they have in Israel and the circumstances of their trip here. It would be possible to be even stricter in testing and vaccination and isolation protocols, but to hermetically seal the skies for our brothers and sisters who are not ordinary tourists, particularly those who are coming here due to special circumstances?

Michael told me about repeated pleas to the Interior Ministry regarding harsh measures and their effects. There are many families that want to take a pre-aliyah trip to Israel before they immigrate, but simply cannot do so now. Perhaps they will never come. There are groups of students waiting to come to study or to volunteer. Perhaps now they, too, will never come. There are many married individuals whose spouses or children are not registered as Israelis and they are simply stuck where they are.

It’s possible to mock them as seeking special privileges. That’s true. A bride can get married without her grandmother and a grandchild can be born and not meet his grandfather for the first two years of his life. But one incident after another after another may create bitter residual feelings. Perhaps we have had so many internal problems that needed attention that we have not noticed the message Diaspora Jewry has been getting from us over the past two years.

There are two former Knesset members who have been dealing with such requests day and night: Dov Lipman and Michal Cotler-Wunsh. Having made aliyah themselves, they understand the predicament of the family members involved. Lipman even started an organization, Yad L’Olim, around this issue. He petitions the Supreme Court over Interior Ministry policy. He says there are days when he receives more than a thousand (!) inquiries.

Cotler-Wunsh has handled tragic cases, among them children who could not come to part from dying parents, only to be allowed in for their funerals and even while contestants in the Miss Universe contest received special permission to enter Israel. In the 73 years young nation state of the Jewish people, she says, a country of olim that values and celebrates aliyah as the realization of its vision, mission and values, aliyah and the relationship with diaspora Jewry must be prioritized and reflected in decision making processes and results. Fighting for criteria extensions in the previous Knesset – for lone soldiers, bnot sherut, olim who gave birth, etc., and demanding a holistic, transparent and consistent policy for all first degree family members as well as for Israel programs (all subject to public health considerations) was but a first step in the paradigm shift she believes is necessary, clarifying that Olim, their families and the communities from which they come are not just ‘tourists’ or ‘exceptions’, they are the rule.

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko, an educator from New York, told me this week how sad it has been for him to see young people travel to the Caribbean over the past two years because they could not gain entry to Israel. “I’m not even talking about the financial loss to Israel, only the educational loss. These are the most formative years for these kids and keeping them out of Israel is a blow to an entire generation.”

This week the chief rabbi of South Africa, Dr. Warren Goldstein, called the closing of our borders “a moral disgrace.” He said that the draconian measures have split apart families and undermined the message that Israel is the country of the Jewish people. “For us, this country is not just another destination in the world, this is Israel. But Israel is telling us: ‘You are not part of us, our borders are closed to you.’ Yet it’s certainly possible to find ways to overcome the current medical challenges and keep the country more open to us. After all, we are proud Zionists. We love the country and care about her. But does she care about us?”

Do we care enough?

Originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Aharonoth

About the Author
Sivan Rahav Meir is a media personality and lecturer. A Jerusalem resident, she is the World Mizrachi’s scholar-in-residence. Her lectures on the weekly Torah portion are attended by hundreds and the live broadcast attracts thousands of listeners around the world. Sivan lectures in Israel and overseas about the media, Judaism, Zionism and new media. She was voted by Globes newspaper as most popular female media personality in Israel and by the Jerusalem Post as one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world.
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