‘Israel’s contract with Diaspora suspended due to COVID-19’

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Conference of Presidents leader: We are more than a passport number, but a critical component of what makes Israel tick.

 WILLIAM DAROFF, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
WILLIAM DAROFF, the CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Arsen Ostrovsky is disappointed with the State of Israel.

Ostrovsky is a leading human rights lawyer who moved to Israel from Australia in 2012. In 2018, he won the Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize recognizing outstanding English-speaking olim who embody the spirit of modern-day Zionism by contributing in a significant way to the country. Yet he wrote in an impassioned Facebook post this week that he feels abandoned by the country.

“We have chosen to make aliyah and devote our lives to this state that we love so much,” Ostrovsky said. “Yet, when we need the state for us, it is nowhere to be seen. No other way to describe this feeling other than pure abandonment.”

Ostrovsky’s story is unfortunately not unique.

Countless new and veteran immigrants have been struggling over the course of the pandemic to gain entry for their loved ones into Israel – for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, births and deaths. Some have succeeded, but others have been met with silence or, perhaps worse, form letters coldly stating a denial of entry.

 A SIGN at Ben-Gurion Airport directs passengers to the COVID-19 testing area. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) A SIGN at Ben-Gurion Airport directs passengers to the COVID-19 testing area. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

“The State of Israel has a contract with the Diaspora, wherein Israel is a place of refuge for us, where there is a safety net that exists for all of us,” said William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “That contract has been suspended.”

Daroff was one of a small number of “exceptions” who was accepted into Israel to visit his daughter who, until last week, was a lone soldier. He and his family arrived just before the government voted to turn the United States, where Daroff lives, into a “red state.”

Now, there are few flights to and from Israel and the US, as not only are American foreign nationals banned from entering Israel, but Israelis are also banned from traveling to the US.

Daroff is calm and forthright when he speaks about the decision made by Israel all the way back in March 2020 to almost completely halt foreign entry into the country, despite his and his organization’s strong lobbying of politicians and decision-makers to find a better way – efforts that for all intents and purposes have failed.

“Israel has very justifiable reasons for closing and limiting entry through its borders,” Daroff said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “But what has been missing is empathy.”

He said, “There just does not seem to be recognition of what we are feeling in the Diaspora from the disconnection forced upon us by the virus. This may be a well-meaning, epidemiological and educated decision, but it has created a gulf and fissures, and it is problematic.”

Daroff said that, at least from the outside, Israel’s policies lack transparency and sometimes seem irrational and disjointed.

“Oftentimes the rules and regulations in Israel and the US seem to be random, capricious, irrational and not very logical,” he said. “It is not helpful in building confidence in the views of the professionals.”

He cited, for example, that in different periods, the parents of pregnant women were allowed into Israel, but parents of the father or would-be father did not have the same exemption. Or, thousands of students and their families could come to learn, while people who work on both sides of the ocean were unable to travel to do their jobs.

Daroff argued, for example, that if Israelis can enter Israel from a red country and quarantine for seven days, foreigners should be able to do the same – especially those with relatives in the country.

Through his role as CEO of the Conference of Presidents, Daroff said he has been lobbying the government to shift its policies and make them more empathetic to the plight of world Jewry.

Daroff is a seasoned lobbyist, who spent 14 years, from 2005 to 2019, as senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington Office of the Jewish Federations of North America, a role he used to advocate for the American Jewish community’s agenda on Capitol Hill.

He told The Jerusalem Post that he met with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked a few weeks ago in New York, has had extensive interaction with the Prime Minister’s Office, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, as well as communication with the Health Ministry. They listened to him, he said, but in the end, Israeli bureaucracy triumphed, and few steps toward Diaspora Jewry have been taken.

“There needs to be recognition that we are more than a passport number, but a critical component of what makes Israel tick,” Daroff said. “I absolutely believe that the government knows that and recognizes that, but there is an issue of translating it through the bureaucracy as it relates both to the policy and how the bureaucracy engages with us.”

TAKE A story recently shared by former MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who has been among the outspoken advocates helping to gain entry to Israel for first-degree relatives of olim. She described a situation in which she was trying to help a man who wanted to come to visit his mother on her deathbed. She could not get him in until the request was for permission to attend his mom’s funeral.

“In a 73-year-young country of olim that values and celebrates aliyah... there are considerations that must be factored in as part of decision-making processes in advance, not in retrospect,” Cotler-Wunsh said. “Nearly two years of COVID-19 underscore the need for a separate category, with clear and transparent policies and consistent implementation. Families of olim are not tourists or exceptions; they are the rule.”

Ostrovsky shared the letter that his mother received from the Consular Affairs Division of the Finance Ministry, a short note letting her know that her request for entry had been denied.

“Your request has been accepted and reviewed,” the letter started out. “Examination of your application shows that it does not meet the criteria that allow a permit to arrive in Israel during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic. You will be able to resubmit your application for arrival in Israel when the pandemic situation improves and the State of Israel will establish new procedures for entry into the State of Israel.”

The letter was signed “regards” and by the “Consular Affairs Division” rather than even a person.

“This is not the way the Jewish state, which is imbued with Jewish values, should be communicating to the Jewish people,” Daroff said.

The letter spawned a lengthy response by Ostrovsky, who shared his story on social networks and gave the Post permission to share it, too. He and his wife have two small children, demanding full-time jobs, and have not seen their parents for more than two years.

“During that time, they have missed the birth of one granddaughter and half the life of the other,” Ostrovsky said. “They were also not able to be with us for the crucial post-birth period. Then there are also the missed birthdays, holidays and special events.

“We applied for a special exemption due to extenuating circumstances,” he continued. “The restrictions, though, are so narrow and extreme that they are near impossible to meet, though I would have thought the simple fact that we have not seen my parents in over two years ought to be sufficient.

“This outrage is compounded when we see exemptions for beauty pageants, athletes, student groups and diplomatic delegations – but our family and loved ones are denied without any compassion or reason.”

He described the rejection letter as “callous” and “cold,” and, like Daroff, said communication was “devoid of empathy or basic human compassion.”

“I get this is an unprecedented time, in an era of COVID pandemic, and we need to be mindful of health concerns,” Ostrovsky added. “But surely there is a better way to find balance and show more empathy? Please do not abandon us. Do all possible to unite families, loved ones – not keep us apart.”

DAROFF SPOKE to the Post on the same day that the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh shared the year’s aliyah statistics, which showed that some 27,050 olim moved to Israel this year – an increase of 30% over the first year of the pandemic.

Among the immigrants were some 4,000 individuals from the United States, as well as another 400 from Canada. There was also a 40% jump in immigration from France, totaling 3,500 new citizens.

“After an incredibly challenging year, we celebrate each and every oleh who made the courageous move and overcame the many difficulties and ever-changing factors over the last year and made aliyah,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh. “The resounding interest in aliyah that we witnessed in 2020 has borne fruit this past year, translating into an actual surge in aliyah.

“As we look to 2022, our organization’s 20th year, we are excited about the future of aliyah and look forward to helping thousands more North Americans realize their Zionist dreams,” he said.

Daroff said that Jews are making aliyah because there is “great insecurity” in America and in the American Jewish community, both because of the reality of coronavirus and the uptick in antisemitism.

“Israel must be a refuge for the Jewish people, and I think some people are doing a cost-benefit analysis, and for many of them these past years have been a wake-up call that their desire and yearning is to come to Israel, and now is the time,” he said, noting, however, how this reality makes Israel’s turning Jewish visitors away even more painful.

“I do believe in the right and obligation of the State of Israel to protect its borders and protect its citizens,” Daroff stressed.

He said coronavirus has brought about “terrible tragedies around the world, and for all of us... corona is a tragedy, and it creates tragic situations.”

He also believes that the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora can be mended.

“It depends how long this goes on, but I think these problems are surmountable,” Daroff said.

“I think that there is an understanding that we live in a very complex, unique time that has almost no reference point from which to judge it, and I am hopeful that as corona recedes with the next wave or end of this wave, the doors will open more fully,” he continued. “I don’t think the damage being done is permanent.”