How will Israel’s closed skies policy affect ties with US Jews?

As the Israeli government continues its ban against most noncitizens, many American Jews say they feel unwelcome in their Jewish homeland.

 Travelers seen at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on December 22, 2021. (photo credit: FLASH90)
Travelers seen at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on December 22, 2021.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

NEW YORK – Israel has largely barred foreign visitors since the pandemic first hit in March 2020. After cautiously allowing in select tour groups, it allowed fully vaccinated tourists in early November.

But the gates abruptly closed again four weeks later with the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron COVID variant, with still no word of a reopening date in the foreseeable future.

As the Israeli government continues its ban against most noncitizens entering the country as an attempt to limit COVID cases, many American Jews say they feel unwelcome in their Jewish homeland, calling the decision a move that damages Israel’s ties with Diaspora Jews.

Those with canceled trips are left feeling frustrated, rejected and even concerned that nearly two years of not being allowed in Israel will impair their long-term relationship with the country.

“When I think about the creation of a Jewish state, I think about being welcoming to everyone, especially folks who identify as Jewish,” Alexander Weingart, a medical student from Boston who was slated to lead a Birthright trip this week, told The Jerusalem Post. “To not allow us into the homeland is a disservice to the Jewish people and takes away from building community.”

 : An Israel El Al airlines plane is seen after its landing following its inaugural flight between Tel Aviv and Nice at Nice international airport, France, April 4, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/ERIC GAILLARD/FILE PHOTO) : An Israel El Al airlines plane is seen after its landing following its inaugural flight between Tel Aviv and Nice at Nice international airport, France, April 4, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/ERIC GAILLARD/FILE PHOTO)

Although the government decided in late December to allow the resumption of some educational trips, in addition to permitting first-degree family members of those getting married, having a bar or bat mitzvah, or giving birth to apply for the special entry, which is still sometimes denied, Weingart’s tour remains called off.

He noted inconsistencies in Israel’s policy.

“My primary issue I have with the decision is that up until recently, Israel was still allowing its own citizens to travel abroad and bring back COVID,” Weingart said. “They had less regulations than us ‘foreigners.’ To me that is just ridiculous.”

As a healthcare worker, Weingart, 24, said he can see why in theory closing the borders could be an effective measure in keeping COVID out. “But in reality,” he continued, “Israel has already taken such strong protective measures, from requiring testing at the airport to quarantines, to ban travel altogether will have no further impact in keeping COVID out of the country.”

Weingart, who has led Birthright five times, said many of the participants who had planned to join his trip this winter may now never visit Israel. “A number of people will now never get the opportunity to participate in Birthright, which has an age cutoff of 32. I recruited most of the participants on my trip, and I can tell you that now most of them will not go to Israel, not because they’re angry about the policy, but because they won’t have the time to fit it into their schedule.

“Birthright is a wonderful educational opportunity. Israel as a state is hindering its own ability to have people forge strong relationships.

“Intermarriage is at an all-time high,” Weingart continued. “These trips give the opportunity for young people to explore and harness their Jewish identity, and that’s being forfeited.”

Gabrielle Weiss, senior regional adviser for Hasbara Fellowships in New York, also planned to lead an educational tour for college students this winter in Israel. She expressed frustration that her trip was canceled, noting that this is an especially crucial time for young Jews to experience Israel, due to the rise of antisemitism in the US.

“Antisemitism is at an all-time high,” Weiss, 24, said. “Especially this past year, and especially living in New York City, students are dying to get to Israel. These trips are what gives them the energy to be able to return to campus and stand up for Israel or to stand up for Israel online.

“Students have had it the hardest. Already they’re missing out on so many college experiences, and now they can’t even get into Israel. They’re Jews, Israel is where they are supposed to be. The fact that when they’re on campus or online they’re putting their lives at risk, becoming targets just for defending Israel, the country should at least be their safe haven, but we can’t even ‘go home’ right now. It’s detrimental to their growth.”

For Megan Orbach, being barred from Israel means not being able to see relatives for the foreseeable future. Orbach, 23, last saw her Israeli aunt and uncle three years ago. She had planned to visit this January for 10 days, but, like all other noncitizens, her plans were detoured.

“I’m starting a new job in Israel advocacy soon, so I was hoping to get back to Israel and refresh my memory beforehand so I could be really engaged in the new job,” Orbach, who resides in Washington, DC, told the Post.

She also noted the contradiction in the policy.

“Israel hosted the Miss Universe pageant last month, but I can’t visit my family. I’ve heard of people with sick family members not being able to get in. It’s strange they’ll let in some but not others,” Orbach said.

“In some ways, I do feel less connected to Israel now. I just wanted to get there before I start my new career,” she continued.

For some American Jews, the exclusion has led them to seek advice from community leaders.

“I get calls three to four times a week from congregants asking ‘Can you help us get into Israel?’” Benny Rogosnitzky, [the] cantor at Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, told the Post. “Often, these are humanitarian reasons. A relative that’s sick or a grandson’s bar mitzvah. But even there, the sense is that you’re climbing the Berlin Wall to get in.”

Last month, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett penned a letter to the Jewish Federations of North America in which he asserted that he was doing everything he could in order to reopen the country’s borders “as soon as possible.”

Yet Rogosnitzky said the criticism he most hears is not that Diaspora Jews can’t get into the country, but, rather, how the Jewish state has gone about a lack of communication.

“It’s not clear from the Israeli government, who can get in, what kind of documentation they need. We have to separate understanding where Israel is coming from in closing its borders from not being so happy with the lack of clear guidance for those who are eligible to get in.

“Our congregation very much prides itself in Zionism,” Rogosnitzky said of the Modern Orthodox synagogue. “The former prime minister was always here for services, Israeli ambassadors come here, we have the children of diplomats, we’re significantly generous to Israel causes.

“When COVID started, no one could travel anywhere, so no one expected Israel to be different. But what has happened now, the way Israel has handled this, many of our members feel there has been no meaningful communication from Israel about the process of getting in, and that’s what’s problematic.

“When it comes to criticizing a lack of communication,” Rogosnitzky continued, “congregants also criticize the CDC for not having clear guidelines. But the reason it hurts so much when it relates to Israel is because people here are so passionate about Israel.”