After a decline in the number of new olim in 2020, Israel’s aliyah numbers seem poised for a rebound in 2021. The pandemic, it seems, has not yet caused Diaspora Jews inclined toward aliyah to reconsider their plans.
If they haven’t reconsidered, however, they should. And if the government’s restrictions on the entry of non-Israelis — including the family members of olim — to Israel continue, I believe that, eventually, more and more of them will.
This is a statement I make only with great pain. Making aliyah four years ago was one of the great privileges of my life. It brought me to the place I consider my homeland, to a job that I love, and, most importantly, to my husband, who I married in a pandemic wedding just over a year ago. Yet, if anyone asked me today if they should follow me, I would have one question for them: how close are you to your family? Because Israeli policies are making aliyah an increasingly untenable choice for anyone with a strong relationship with parents or other loved ones they would be leaving behind.
My own position throughout the pandemic has been relatively enviable. My parents are retirees whose children both live in Israel, allowing for flexible travel dates and lengthy stays. They were able to come to my wedding, which only had to be delayed once. Now, due in large part to the experiences of the past year, they are preparing for aliyah themselves.
Others have been less fortunate. At minimum, all olim went through a period of 13 months in which non-Israeli family was barred almost entirely from entry. During some, but not all of that period, exceptions were made for weddings, funerals, and the birth of children. For about two months in early 2021, olim themselves, like other Israelis, could not leave Israel under any but the most urgent circumstances. From the experience of olim who applied for such exceptions, it appears that funerals were generally considered urgent. The serious illnesses that preceded them were generally not.
In April of last year, the policies were relaxed to allow for vaccinated, first-degree relatives of olim to apply to enter Israel, a hard-won concession that came only after months of campaigning by olim and our advocates. It was also a strictly limited one.
The process for applying for an entry permit (ishur) is involved, and the amount of time it will take is unpredictable and dependent on which consulate or embassy you apply through. Ishurim are only valid for a month, so if your loved one is traveling to attend a specific event, applying too far in advance, even if the consulate permits it, can be risky — yet at times of high backlog, getting approval can take up to four weeks. The Facebook group Reunite Olim with Our Families, created to advocate for change and help olim through the process, is littered with desperate messages from people still awaiting ishurim, only hours before their intended flights.
And that is the best-case scenario. If your parents live in a country in which vaccinations are still not widely available, they cannot enter Israel for any reason other than your wedding (no, not even the birth of your child). If your parents live in a red country, as determined by the rate of infection, not only can they not visit you, you cannot visit them.
Your grandparents are not first-degree relatives. Neither are nieces and nephews — if your brother or sister wants to visit, the kids, even if vaccinated, stay home.
Defenders of these restrictions will claim that they have saved lives. Undoubtedly, they are correct. In the context of a highly contagious virus, nearly any restriction on movement and assembly will save some number of lives. Shuttering schools, synagogues, and restaurants would save lives. So would reimposing severe limits on private gatherings, or barring them entirely. Yet society as we know it would cease to function — and would have long before the pandemic — if we restricted every activity that carried a degree of risk. Life comes with inherent risks. The question we ask ourselves in evaluating them is not whether permitting a particular pleasure or convenience may cost lives, the answer to which will almost always be “yes.” It is how great a risk does it pose, and what are the countervailing consequences — from the practical to the philosophical to the personal—of prohibiting it.
Reasonable people will come to different conclusions on what constitutes an acceptable level of risk. At this point, however, the rationale for prohibiting relatively free travel for vaccinated foreigners, at the very least, seems strained. The best and most frequently cited reason for closing the borders has been to keep out new mutations and variants. Yet restrictive policies did not stop Delta or, before that, the British mutation, from taking hold in Israel. As long as the skies remain open to Israeli travelers — including the unvaccinated — we cannot reasonably expect to keep any future variants out either.
It is hard to credit, too, the fear that vaccinated travelers required to present negative tests before flying will prove a particularly significant source of COVID spread, or that a population unlikely to include the sickest and most vulnerable to COVID will burden our health care system by swelling the ranks of the hospitalized. This assumption has been borne out by the experience of European countries, nearly all of whom have allowed vaccinated and even some unvaccinated tourists to return without seeing any corresponding increase in their infection rates, and many of whose present COVID numbers are substantially better than ours. It is supported, too, by recent MOH data on the breakdown of positive tests among arrivals to Israel by country of origin. In the last month, 0.54 percent of all arrivals from the US tested positive, for a total of 297 people, a number that would have included both non-citizens and citizens, the latter of whom need not be vaccinated to travel. In the same period, 9.59 % of arrivals from the Ukraine had positive tests, amounting to 3,426 people, a population presumably comprised almost entirely of Israelis returning from Uman. Plainly, vaccinated tourists — some of whom, at this point, would be entering from countries at lower COVID risk than Israel — are not the problem.
But even if we were to accept the logic behind the restrictions, the conclusion would be the same: making aliyah now comes with the risk of indefinite separation from loved ones left behind. Necessary or not, the natural consequence of policies that severely restrict the ability of olim to see their families is that prospective olim will and should reconsider whether that is a price they are willing to pay.
Aliyah has always involved sacrifice. At times, it has even involved extraordinary sacrifice. Olim came to this country in an era when doing so meant almost total loss of contact with family or friends. They came to fight, and sometimes die, defending it. Many were fleeing persecution that made accepting any amount of danger and privation in Israel a worthwhile trade. Some were not, and came, out of pure ideological commitment, at great personal cost. Yet there is a reason we regard those in the latter group as heroes. In the years leading up to the pandemic, the choice to make aliyah still required sacrifice. It did not, thank G-d, any longer require heroism. The 30,000 olim who arrived in the last full year before the pandemic were coming to a developed country at a time of relative peace. They were signing up for relatively lower salaries, language and cultural barriers, and far greater distance from loved ones. They were not signing up to be kept from their parents’ deathbeds and have their children know their grandparents only through a Zoom screen.
There is a profound difference, too, between unavoidable, perhaps even meaningful sacrifices and those exacted by the deliberate policies of a government that has pledged to support and welcome you — policies far in excess of what other countries are imposing, and which have become increasingly inconsistent with its choices in other aspects of pandemic risk assessment. When a government will allow hundreds to pack into wedding halls, but will not allow the bride’s vaccinated grandmother from a low-risk country to attend, that bride is not making a sacrifice for the good of the Jewish state. She is confronting the betrayal of officials who have decided that the most basic emotional needs of olim are a very low priority indeed.
Today, the situation seems more hopeful than it has for some time. Cases and hospitalizations are going down, in Israel and in much of the world. As of this week, the last red countries have been removed from the list, and there are reports of plans to allow vaccinated tourists to return as soon as November 1st. But “vaccinated tourists,” according to some early reports, will mean only tourists who have been double-vaccinated within six months or received a booster — even though boosters are not yet available to almost anyone outside of Israel. In any case, we have been here before: the skies were last supposed to reopen on July 1st, and there is no reason to believe that they will not close again if a new variant emerges. What we do know is that the Israeli government, to all appearances, does not consider prolonged family separation unreasonable and will not work particularly hard to develop measures to avoid it. In discussions of how to live with the pandemic, olim will, again and again, be left out.
With all of that in mind, I still can’t bring myself to tell prospective olim to stay where they are. But then, I’m not the one saying it. The Israeli government is.