Omicron COVID variant: South African Jews ejected from Israel

Five South African nationals who arrived in Israel Friday morning were removed from the country, and say they were subjected to ‘inhumane, disrespectful’ treatment.

 Israelis leaving the country ahead of possible new restrictions due to the Omicron variant, on November 28, 2021.  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
Israelis leaving the country ahead of possible new restrictions due to the Omicron variant, on November 28, 2021.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

South African visitors to Israel whose flight left before the government decided to ban arrivals from there and who were ejected from Israel upon their arrival have said they were treated “like criminals” and “enemies of the state” by officials from the Population and Immigration Authority.

The five visitors had their passports confiscated, were given no information as to why they were not being allowed into the country, were offered no food or water, and subsequently put on a return flight under threat of arrest.

The Population and Immigration Authority said in response it was following government orders, and that there are food vending machines in the airport.

The Prime Minister's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment as to whether the prime minister supports the behavior of the Population and Immigration Authority officials. 

Five South Africans arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport on Friday morning via a connecting flight through Dubai, but were denied entry into Israel because the government banned arrivals from most of Africa due to concerns over the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

This undated transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, also known as novel coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus parti (credit: NIAID-RML/FILE PHOTO/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)This undated transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, also known as novel coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus parti (credit: NIAID-RML/FILE PHOTO/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Two of the travelers who spoke to The Jerusalem Post said their passports were confiscated by Immigration Authority officials, who did not give them any information, were rude and intimidating, and even threatened them with arrest.

The two travelers were both friends of the family of Eli Kay, the 26-year-old immigrant who was murdered in a terrorist attack last week, and had come to pay a shiva mourning visit and support the family.

The flight they and the other three visitors departed Johannesburg at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, before the government’s decision banning any arrivals from the country.

That decision had gone into effect before they boarded the flight in Dubai to Tel Aviv, but Israeli officials in Dubai failed to inform the travelers that they would not be allowed into the country, or to stop them boarding the flight altogether.

Upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, they were taken to a waiting area where they stayed for around an hour, and then were “marched” back to the departure area and had their bags scanned for security, again without anyone telling them what was happening.

They were not offered food or water throughout their entire time at the airport. The story was first reported by Yediot Aharonot.

“We were treated as enemies of the state,” said Byron Blumenau, 29, from Johannesburg. “They didn’t want to hear anything, there was absolutely no discussion, they didn’t want to have a conversation with us as if we were normal people.”

Blumenau, who is Jewish, is not strictly observant but avoids traveling on Shabbat if possible. He said that being made to travel on Shabbat for the flight back to Dubai, and then on to Johannesburg, made him uncomfortable.

He said Israel was right to protect itself from COVID-19 but is not handling foreign travelers properly.

"The decision that was made to not allow us entry into Israel was in the interest of Israel and I back that decision 100%. The way the situation was handled should have been done more sensitively," said Blumenau.

Ilana Smith, who was on the same flight, also condemned the manner in which she and the four other travelers were treated.

“We were treated like criminals and intimidated,” said Smith. “We weren’t allowed to ask questions, and there was no communication at all.”

Smith told the officials that she was religiously observant, and that they were forcing her to violate Shabbat by putting her on the plane.

“The guy told me, ‘I’m also Jewish, I don’t care, we have bigger things to worry about. You’re getting on the plane,’” Smith said. He then threatened to arrest her and forcibly put her on the plane if she refused to board herself, and called three security officials to the spot to reinforce his point.

She also noted that the group was not offered food or water while they were in the airport. Smith said that since she is observant, she could not eat the food on the flight to Dubai or obtain kosher food in Dubai Airport, meaning that she spent the entire Shabbat without anything to eat apart from an apple and a banana.

“We were treated with intimidation, disrespect and inhuman behavior,” said Smith. “We were made out to be criminals in the Jewish state – the Jewish state made us break Shabbat, and didn’t care about it.”

In response, the Population and Immigration Authority said that “border inspectors of the Population and Immigration Authority are making great and successful efforts to treat every traveler in a dignified and respectful manner. Those who wait in Ben-Gurion Airport for an extended period of time receive food, and in any case, there are vending machines for drinks.”

The Post reported earlier this month about the routine verbal abuse and intimidation tactics used by authority officials to foreign travelers.

Founder of the Yad L’Olim organization and former Knesset member Rabbi Dov Lipman who tried to intervene for the South African travelers said he supported "measures to protect public health," but was appalled by the manner in which the travelers were treated. 

"I am in shock by the lack of consideration as a Jewish statute and basic humane activity in this story," Lipman said.

"I spent all Friday afternoon fighting for these people who did not violate any rules. They left South Africa before the new rules were announced.  How is it possible that our leaders on the highest of levels who I reached and spoke to forced these Jews to violate Shabbat and treated them in this manner? Had this happened in a country like the USA and people said that it violated their religious beliefs, a solution would have been found. And the Jewish state couldn’t do so? I am ashamed by this and hope leaders will learn from this and will never allow this to happen again.”