Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana has written to Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and requested that Jewish foreign nationals and ex-pat Israelis with relatives in Israel be afforded entry to Israel without special permits during periods of heightened restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The minister said such a step was required to strengthen the sense of belonging and closeness of Jews around the world to the State of Israel.
Officials from Kahana’s office have met with officials in the Prime Minister’s Office in order to advance the proposal, a spokesman for the minister said, although similar meetings with the Health Ministry have yet to take place.
Kahana is the second minister to float such an idea in the last two weeks, after Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern made a similar proposal.
Kahana’s request comes following the reimposition by the government at the end of November of a total ban on foreign nationals entering the country, with few exceptions, due to concerns surrounding the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
Thousands of Jews in the Diaspora have experienced severe difficulties in visiting family members in Israel since those restrictions were put in place, while tens of thousands have had similar problems over the last year, and indeed since the pandemic began.
“I request that as part of its policy, the State of Israel creates a distinction between tourists and Jews from around the world,” wrote Kahana to the health minister.
He noted that many Diaspora Jews and ex-pat Israelis visit Israel frequently in order to visit family and because they see the country as a second home.
Kahana said a Jew who has a first-degree relative in Israel who is either a new immigrant or who is serving in the IDF, or in an educational framework, should be put on a different track for entry than that of other tourists, “in order to make it easier for them so that they can enter Israel without the need for a special permit.
The religious services minister said that such a system should not apply to people coming from so-called “red countries” with high rates of COVID infection, or for the unvaccinated.
“I think that we as the government of Israel are obligated to make this distinction, and to work in all periods, including during the coronavirus era, to strengthen the sense of belonging and closeness of Jews around the world and Israelis who do not live in Israel to the State of Israel,” concluded Kahana.
The minister’s comments follow those last week by Stern, who said the government should institute a special status for Jewish foreign nationals who wish to visit Israel through organizational frameworks such as those on Birthright trips or other Israel-experience programs, and for those on delegations with Jewish representative organizations and philanthropic groups.
Chief Rabbi of South Africa Dr. Warren Goldstein, who has himself called on the Israeli government not to shut its doors to World Jewry during the COVID crisis, thanked Stern for his advocacy on the issue in a letter he sent the minister on Monday.
Goldstein said in his letter to Stern that the closure policy “harms the connection between Diaspora Jews and the State of Israel,” adding that Diaspora Jews had been “very offended by the entry ban on Jews from around the world.
“This policy causes foundational and ongoing damage to tis between Israel and Jewish communities around the world, and to the essence of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state,” wrote the rabbi.
Goldstein acknowledged that the government should not endanger the health of its citizens, but said the solution was to impose the same entry restrictions on foreigners as on Israeli nationals returning from abroad who are currently still allowed to leave and return to the country on condition of quarantine and PCR testing.
“The disease does not distinguish between those who have an Israeli passport and those who do not,” the rabbi pointed out .
Goldstein thanked Stern for raising the issue that “influences the strategic, long-term power of the State of Israel’s connection to Diaspora Jewry,” and said the Jewish people could not afford to be split into two.
“I call on you to urgently explain this responsibility to your colleagues in the government so that it will be possible to change this policy immediately.”