Sitting in his office on the 10th floor at the Malha Technology Park in Jerusalem, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai says he understands the anger, pain and frustration of Jews abroad unable to attend family weddings, births and even funerals here because corona regulations have intermittently closed the country’s gates.
He should understand, and not only because, as the Diaspora Affairs Minister, those denied entry can be considered his “constituents.” He should also understand because he has “been there, done that.”
Last February, Shai, who was teaching at Duke University, went through the whole rigmarole – after the airports were closed – of applying for entry into Israel so he could take part in the election campaign: he was running eighth on the Labor Party list.
Shai’s application was denied twice. Only after taking to the radio and being interviewed on KAN Reshet Bet was he finally able to secure permission to enter, shortly before the balloting.
But not everybody who wants to come to Israel, and is being denied entry, has access to a microphone or is running for the Knesset.
“We have to be much more flexible than we have been so far,” Shai said.
Shai is not the only person saying this; several prominent personalities have expressed concern that the closed sky policy the country has implemented from time to time is causing unnecessary hardship to immigrants living here and to Jews abroad. Yet nothing has changed, and the anger, pain and frustration continue to mount.
“I truly believe that now the policy is going to change,” Shai said on Tuesday, a couple days before the Health Ministry removed the red status from all countries for the time being.
But when a fifth or sixth coronavirus variant hits, “we have to be prepared with a different policy toward those people, Jews and non-Jews, who have strong contacts in Israel, relationship with Israelis, for whom sometimes Israel is the center of their lives, and who even have businesses here.”
If another pandemic wave hits, and the skies are again closed, Shai said, Israel needs to increase the number of exceptions and take a “wider perspective.”
This wider perspective, Shai added, must take into consideration other religions as well. “If we allow entry for a Birthright group, then we should open also for a group of [non-Jewish] pilgrims to come to Israel.”
He said that a representative of his ministry should be on the exceptions committee that deals with special cases, something that surprisingly has not been the case until now.
Shai said that – like Cato the Elder, who in ancient Rome constantly repeated his admonition that Carthage must be destroyed – he constantly raises at the cabinet meetings the need to “open the borders to Jews and non-Jews who want to come to Israel.”
After weeks of being told by the other ministers “we hear you,” last Sunday he was assured that this time the policy is really going to change.
Asked why it has taken so long, and why there has not been greater sensitivity to the issue so far, Shai – who stressed that he has been at his desk for only seven months – said that when the pandemic first hit, the decision-makers thought that this would be a short-lived crisis and that everything would soon go back to normal.
“Now we know it is going to be here for a long time – we’ve already started the third year now. So we have to figure out what to do.”
This type of decision-making, he said, is typically Israel. “When nothing is happening, we do nothing. Then when something has to be done, we say, ‘Not now, it’s not a good time,’ [because there is too much else going on].”
Israel’s policy of restricting entry into the country has led some Diaspora Jews and their leaders to claim that this shows the country has abandoned Diaspora Jewry, that the Zionist promise that the country will always be a refuge for Jews no longer holds true.
Asked how he responds to that, Shai said that he makes clear that Israel’s first priority is to its citizens and their health. And if this means closing the borders temporarily, “We will do it, even if it is painful, even if it hurts you guys [Diaspora Jews]. We live in Israel, and we don’t want people to die.”
Sounding a bit like the IDF spokesman he once was, Shai said Israel “has to defend the country against this enemy. It [corona] is like an enemy. So we will close the border, and will do other things as well, just to ensure that Israelis will survive.”
That being said, Shai said that he advocates at the highest levels for consideration of how decisions and actions may affect Diaspora communities.
Although that sounds reasonable, the question arises about what this means practically. For instance, if Israel feels that it must take military action against Hamas in Gaza, but knows that, when it does, this will lead to antisemitic actions against Jews abroad, should that be weighed into the decision?
The issue “should be brought up,” Shai said, even if it isn’t going to impact the final decision, and Israel will take action even though as a direct consequence some Jews abroad may be attacked verbally and even physically.
Yet if this consideration is not, in the end, going to impact the final decision, what use is there in even raising the issue?
“We have to prepare them [the Diaspora communities],” he said. “We have to help them take the right measures. We have to prepare them in advance for situations like this, help them protect themselves in times of crisis, advise them on what to do. Do you run community life like normal? Do you open the schools? Do you have guards at the schools? What about the community centers?”
Shai said that his ministry is engaged in this type of activity, and spending millions of shekels in projects to protect Jewish sites around the world – mostly in Europe, less in America because they are better equipped to “take care of themselves.’” Even there, however, “we advise them and consult with them about what is the best way, because we have a lot of experience and knowledge and know-how.”
When a war breaks out in Israel, Shai said, communities abroad should have a list of standing orders of what to do. “We can foresee what will happen, because of our past experience.”
SHAI NOTED that during last May’s Operation Guardian of the Walls, the American Jewish community did not come together and hold a massive rally in Washington. Only one rally, which drew only about 1,500 people, was held there.
He offered several of explanations for an overall lack of large public demonstrations by American Jewry during that campaign, including the frequency of Israel’s military confrontations; the nature of the battles where there are large numbers of collateral fatalities on the other side; a lack of education; no progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track; and the much-discussed distancing of American Jewry from Israel over the past decade.
Though he said he does not want to blame this all on former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Shai said this gap increased under his tenure as a result of many different factors: the shelving of the Western Wall compromise plan; the fact that American Jews moved center-Left, while Israeli Jews moved increasingly center-Right; and the thinking in the former government that Israel did not need to cultivate American Jewry to the extent it had in the past, because it had other partners – such as the Evangelicals – who could be relied on.
While much is often discussed and written about Israel’s responsibility to the Diaspora, when asked what he felt were the Diaspora’s responsibilities toward Israel, Shai said simply, “for them to support Israel.”
“That’s natural,” he said. “But it is no longer an automatic, Pavlovian response. We have to convince them time and again that the war, the hard power we use, is the only alternative at that point. But we also have to show that we are also using soft and smart power.”
IF THE Western Wall controversy was one of the major factors for the distancing of segments of American Jewry from Israel over the past five years, many thought that with the establishment of a new government – which included parties that have long been calling for a more open approach toward non-Orthodox streams of Judaism – the Western Wall plan would be implemented immediately.
The plan, first approved by Netanyahu in 2016 but later shelved under pressure from his haredi coalition partners, called for a special egalitarian prayer area to be established at the Kotel. Representatives of the pluralistic streams of Judaism were to be on the governing body overseeing the site.
But, almost seven months after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took office, the plan remains frozen – just as it was under the previous government, but this time even though there are no haredi parties in the coalition.
“I’m in favor,” Shai said. “Most of the government is in favor. We are just waiting for the best timing.
“This question should be addressed to Naftali Bennett, because I’ve raised it with him more than once, as did [Labor Party head] Merav [Michaeli] and [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid.
“But we don’t want to break the ship. We want to fight on the ship, but not throw anyone into the water.”
Asked why implementing this plan would “break the ship,” even though there are no haredi parties on board, Shai said, “There is pressure from the outside.”
Bennett, he said, is trying to figure out “which war he wants to fight first. He has the conversion reform, and the kashrut reform... and I guess there are pressures from his own community, his own circles. After all, he is an Orthodox Jew.”
In 2013, when Bennett was the Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs minister, he erected a makeshift platform above the Wall’s archaeological park to serve as a temporary space for egalitarian prayer until a broader compromise was agreed upon.
“He is very proud of that,” Shai said. “He said that in four days he almost solved the whole issue. I told him, ‘So take another four days and finish it, complete the job.’”
Asked if Bennett was now the reason the plan had not moved forward, Shai replied: “It is in the government. It’s mainly the prime minister, because you don’t have to convince Yair [Lapid] or [Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor] Liberman or even [New Hope leader] Gideon Sa’ar.
“But at the same time, we are very sensitive to the complicated structure of this government. This is true in regards to Gaza, to the Palestinians, and also in this case as well.”