Israel’s borders are finally back open again and the urgent task of welcoming the world back to the Holy Land must begin in earnest.
Over the last 18 months, we have all missed out on long-awaited celebrations, trips, and gatherings through the lockdowns and travel restrictions in place around the world. Israel has been particularly stringent with its border policies, with the country remaining closed to most non-citizens since the onset of the pandemic in March last year. The vast majority of us accepted these restrictions, knowing that the health and wellbeing of humanity come above all else – and this has proven to be the right course of action by and large.
However, the world in November 2021 is a very different place from that of March 2020. We have been blessed with the swift development and delivery of an effective vaccine against the coronavirus, allowing a vestige of normality to return to many countries around the world. In Israel, this month marks the moment non-citizens can finally return to visit, ending a sad period that has essentially seen Jews and the wider global community locked out of Israel for the first time since the establishment of the State in 1948.
While protecting physical health for the good, this closure has often had a damaging effect on the social, emotional, spiritual and broader health of Jewish peoplehood. The relationship between Israel and global Jewish communities has always been complex, but the years preceding the pandemic saw strains and tensions erupt in an unprecedented way. Nonetheless, the opportunities for young Jews to visit the State of Israel on meaningful trips grew rapidly, tourists visited the country in record numbers, and philanthropic giving to good causes in Israel grew, ensuring the grassroots relationship between Israel and global Jewry remained strong overall.
Yet for the last year and a half, most of these physical encounters haven’t happened. The time has come to take stock of the damage this has caused. One key demographic affected is young Jews. For a teenager discovering who they are and where they fit into the world for the first time, a Zoom tour is simply no substitute for seeing the Western Wall for the first time, climbing Masada at dawn, and meeting Israeli counterparts face-to-face. Tens of thousands of young Jews in the Diaspora have missed out on these experiences and – sadly – some may never get the chance again. This will have an irreparable effect on the Jewish and Zionist identity of many young people.
As someone whose own trip to Israel at age sixteen was life-altering and went on to lead many of these trips for young Jews to Israel in my career as an educator, it pains me to think of those who haven’t had these opportunities. In a confusing world for Jewish young people, where anti-semitism and anti-Zionism is rife on university campuses, social media and the streets of major Western cities, young Jews are under more pressure than ever to define their relationship with Israel. Experiencing first-hand the people and rock of Israel and embracing it as a stabilizing factor in their Jewish identity is crucial to this. The lost time may not be made up for some.
For those Jews in the Diaspora with a longstanding relationship with Israel, revolving around frequent visits to see family, friends and the holy sites, this closure has also hit hard. While it was reported that philanthropic giving to causes in Israel grew in 2020, some who have given to Israeli charities in the past are feeling alienated and unappreciated. The thinking goes that there are many other worthy causes in their own countries in need of donations – why give to a country that we haven’t connected with directly and won’t even let us in?
This situation should give Israeli and Jewish leaders pause for thought. While damage control is important, we also have to internalize the changed world we now live in, adapt to, and build back up in a different way to reflect this. We must also look for ways to turn lingering negative sentiments concerning the border closure into a positive opportunity. For many Jews, the inability to enter the Land of Israel provoked an acute longing for Zion alien to our generation, but innate to every Jew living in exile before the State of Israel was founded. Channeling this to strengthen Jewish peoplehood and the connection Jews in the Diaspora have for Israel must be a priority.
All is certainly not lost. The borders are opening and opportunities to make up for lost time are already being planned. Israel will once again become the physical center of orbit for the Jewish world.
While this pandemic is not over yet, the world is far from fully vaccinated and new variants can still throw us once again, the time has nevertheless come for Israel to cautiously let the Jews back in. For the long-term wellbeing of our people, the Jewish family simply needs to see each other again and I for one look forward to this day.