I had the opportunity to visit my daughter in seminary in Israel for Thanksgiving weekend. Little did I know that I was among the last group of Diaspora Jews who were allowed entry into Israel before the government closed the borders to non-Israelis, absent certain exceptions, because of the Omicron variant. My wife was planning on visiting my daughter in January, but in all likelihood she will cancel her trip.
Many Jews have been furious at the Israeli government for the way that it has treated Jews during this pandemic. How can you close the country to Jews who have family that they so desperately want to visit in Israel, but give a free pass to citizens? The state of Israel is the Jewish homeland!
Recently, Rabbi Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa, called the entry ban on Diaspora Jews a ‘moral disgrace.’ He warned that the country must reverse the ban or risk long-term damage to the country’s relationship with Diaspora Jews. He highlighted the “heartlessness of these policies” when friends of the family of Eli Kay, who was slain in a terrorist attack last month, came from South Africa to support the family and were barred from entry to the country after the entry regulations changed while they were in the air en route. They were forced to violate Shabbat when they had to forcibly board a plane out of the country on Friday afternoon.
I feel for my friends and family who want to visit loved ones in Israel and cannot fit under an exemption to gain entry, but I disagree with Rabbi Goldstein’s characterization of Israel’s policy. This issue goes to the heart of what rights Diaspora Jews have in decisions made by the State of Israel. For example, when it comes to issues relating to safety, like decisions about whether to use a diplomatic or military route in dealing with an enemy, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that Diaspora Jews should not have a voice in these decisions, because at the end of the day, these decisions affect the safety of Jews specifically living in Israel and I don’t feel comfortable voicing strong opinions on a matter that doesn’t directly affect my safety but directly affects the safety of others.
That being said, I remember years ago in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Jews from Gush Katif, some American Jewish organizations re-thought their position of not voicing an opinion on these types of issues. This withdrawal certainly affected the safety of Israeli citizens. Nevertheless, many Diaspora Jews felt that withdrawing from a part of Eretz Yisrael was an issue that Jews who appreciate our Biblical and historical connection to Eretz Yisrael should have a right to have their opinion considered.
Another example of this issue is the constant friction about whether to provide an egalitarian prayer area in the Kotel. I would argue that Diaspora Jewry should have a voice regarding this issue. I’m not taking a view here on whether we should create an egalitarian section. I just think that the Kotel is a symbol to Jews worldwide and does not impact the health or safety of Israeli Jews and therefore, Diaspora Jews do have a right to have their opinion be considered.
The decisions of the Israeli government about opening and closing its borders to foreigners fall under the category of laws that affect the health and safety of its citizens and therefore, it is completely legitimate to close the borders to Diaspora Jews for a limited amount of time while the government reasonably feels that it is doing so for the well-being of its citizens. Is the Israeli government perfect? Of course not. Did the government commit an egregious error when they sent back Jews to South Africa on Shabbat instead of finding a way to minimize the health risk and avoid Chillul Shabbat? I think so. However, governments, both national, statewide and local, along with shuls and schools, have all made many mistakes in finding the perfect balance between protecting the health of their citizens or constituents and creating a semblance of normalcy in everyday life. But that doesn’t mean that the government is being morally disgraceful based on its COVID rules.
I do not subscribe to the argument that because Israel is the Jewish state then all Jews must be let in immediately to the country. This is not a situation when Jews are being persecuted in the diaspora for their religion and they need a refuge to protect them and Israel is closing its doors to them. This is, hopefully, a temporary situation that according to the Israeli government has been created for the health and safety of its citizens.
On the one hand, we all should feel the pain of those Diaspora Jews who want to but cannot visit the only Jewish state in the world and/or their loved ones currently in the only Jewish state in the world. Furthermore, we should advocate that the government make reasonable allowances for exceptions in critical situations where possible. However, let us not allow our emotions to get the best of us. COVID policies have been the source of so much division because the stakes are great on both sides and everyone has an opinion. Let us approach this issue with humility, be open to other perspectives in evaluating the issue, and let us not fall into the trap of using this entry ban as a further cause to bring about more division between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.