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Day 20: Why are we still not allowed back in Israel?

We're vaccinated citizens willing to get coronavirus tests and isolate. Why can't we come back home while hundreds of foreign athletes are invited in?

It can only be described as a “you must be kidding” moment. As I wrote last week, my family, like hundreds of other people, has been barred from entry to Israel since the end of January, despite our being citizens and residents, and despite my wife and I having received two doses of the vaccine.

As part of my regular routine at the end of my workday, I flipped over to the Times of Israel news page to see what is going on in Israel in my absence. I was hoping to see confirmation that the restrictions for travel are set to expire as scheduled on February 20.

That’s not what I found.

What I actually saw was the following opening line to a story, entitled “Exiled Iranian judo champion set to land in Israel for Tel Aviv tourney,” that caught my eye:

“A former world judo champion who fled Iran in 2019 in a dispute over competing against Israelis was set to land in the Jewish state Sunday afternoon to compete in a Judo Grand Slam competition being held this week in Tel Aviv.”

This can’t be right, I thought. After all, I have been trying to come back to Israel with my family for weeks, with no success; there must be something I’m missing. So I kept reading.

“The competition is being held despite Israel being under a national lockdown to curb coronavirus infections that limits indoor gatherings to just ten people and that has seen Ben Gurion Airport shuttered since last month, with air travel to and from the country severely limited. Last week the chair of the Israel Judo Association, Moshe Ponte, explained to Kan the strict terms under which the contest is being held to enable the arrival of some 500 competitors from abroad.”

Let me get this straight: Israel is inviting 500 fighters, along with their support staff and team, into Israel for a judo competition, but literally hundreds of citizens of Israel are unable to return? And these competitors are authorized to compete just days after landing in Israel? Huh?

Vaccinated citizens who are separated from their families have been unable to return. Business owners and employees stranded overseas have been left without the ability to earn a paycheck. People whose family members are terminally ill have been unable to travel to be with their loved ones. People who require medical supplies unavailable in Israel have been unable to find travelers to bring them their much-needed treatments from the USA. But non-citizens from dozens of countries around the world are able to arrive for a judo competition?

‘Strict terms’

So what are these “strict terms” that the government has deemed makes it safe for the competition – presumably among mostly unvaccinated fighters – to take place?

For comparison, here are the terms that my family received from the Health Ministry, a prompt nine days after sending an inquiry requesting return to Israel with home quarantine:

“Until 21.2.2021 all inbound passengers from all destinations must go into isolation in a motel rather than at home. The duration of isolation in a state-designated isolation motel is 14 days or 10 days if the person in isolation takes two coronavirus tests and both test results are negative, in accordance with the timeframe set in the protocol.”

So for my family, with two vaccinated parents and four children, the terms of return after being awarded a special exemption (which, despite applying for one over a week ago, we have yet to receive), is to lock our kids in a room for 10-14 days. Got it. Are those the same strict terms required by the martial artists?

As it turns out, no, those are not the same “strict terms.” Instead, the international judo competition has a different set of rules:

  1. Before being allowed on the plane, each competitor and trainer will need to provide two negative virus tests.

We could do that.

  1. In Israel, the arrivals will undergo another virus test and will be quarantined in hotel rooms, unable to leave until a negative result is confirmed.

We could do that.

  1. Those who are clear of the virus will be permitted to leave their rooms, though competitors will be kept in pods of small numbers and isolated from those on other floors of the building, including for meals and transport to the competition venue. Transportation vehicles will be disinfected after each journey.

We could do one better. After receiving a negative test, we could quarantine at home for the remainder of the 10-14 days without any contact with anyone. Apparently, however, that isn’t good enough.

As a freedom-loving dual American citizen, Israel’s denial of citizens to return to their home is mindboggling. But the reality that the country is willing to make accommodations for an athletic competition, but not for its own citizens to be in their own homes, is profoundly unfair.

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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