Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has written to the heads of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) telling them he is aware of the “hardship” and difficulties Israel’s renewed border closure to foreign nationals has caused to Jews around the world.
Bennett said the government is constantly reassessing the situation and will do everything to allow Diaspora Jews to visit Israel as soon as possible.
The prime minister’s comments came against the backdrop of ongoing criticism of Israel’s policies toward the entry of foreign Jews, particularly those with family in the country, and repeated reports of abusive behavior by officials in the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) toward those visiting the country.
A source close to Bennett noted that the prime minister and other cabinet ministers had received complaints from Jewish and Zionist organizations about the stringent border closures.
Bennett wrote to JFNA chairman Mark Wilf and its president and CEO Eric Fingerhut on Wednesday, stating that although his primary responsibility is to protect Israeli citizens, his government was “deeply committed to Jewish communities in North America and hopes to welcome them back to Israel as soon as possible.
When the government shut the borders again at the end of November on the advice of public health experts due to the Omicron COVID-19 variant, the prime minister said that it “did not take this decision lightly,” and that it took this step while “acutely aware of the severe hardship and disruption it is causing people around the world, particularly members of the Jewish community.
“I deeply regret any pain felt by you and those in your community who are cherished members of our global Jewish family,” he said, adding that “the close relationship between Israel and world Jewry” was a “fundamental value” of the State of Israel.
“We are also very conscious of the thousands of individuals who had been or are planning family visits, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and more, and for whom the decision was a very serious blow,” Bennett said.
“We are well aware of the pain being caused, and you have my word that we will do all we can to help Jews around the world visit Israel again as soon as possible.”
The prime minister concluded, “Rest assured that we are doing everything in our power to solve this crisis as soon as possible, in order to allow visits to the Jewish state and maintain the supreme importance of the relationship between our communities.”
Questions, however, have continued to be asked about Israel’s policies for entry into the country set by a PIBA committee, as well as the authority’s problematic attitude toward those requesting entry into the country.
Since the latest border closure, exemptions have been given to first-degree relatives of Israeli citizens getting married and of those holding bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, but not for the parents of expectant mothers and fathers.
Following intense criticism of this policy, and a campaign led by the Yad L’Olim organization, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked decided to allow the parents of expectant mothers and fathers to enter the country.
Parents can request an entry permit to arrive a week before the due date and up to 30 days after the baby is born.
Shaked said in a Facebook post on Thursday that the requests of pregnant women had “touched her heart,” noting that her own mother passed away at a young age, so she did not have her mother with her when she had her children.
“Someone like me understands how important and necessary a mother figure is in such an important and exciting turning point of life,” wrote Shaked.
Yad L’Olim founder and director Rabbi Dov Lipman said “I am so thankful that the government has finally heard the voices of Olim [immigrants] and their families. Yad L’Olim has been advocating in the Knesset for these exceptions for a long time.”
PIBA has still not clarified the terms of this policy change.
Another policy, the implementation of which has been strongly criticized, has been that of allowing the relatives of Israelis holding bar and bat mitzvah celebrations to enter the country.
Israeli embassies and consulates which process entry requests from foreign Jews were never even informed by PIBA that entry was possible on this basis, causing distress and disappointment among dozens of families in the last two weeks.
As reported by The Jerusalem Post, PIBA has also been accused of routine abusive and threatening behavior to Jews from the Diaspora and others, including an incident in which friends of Eli Kay, slain in a terrorist attack last month, who came to comfort the Kay family were summarily ejected from the country without food or water and forced to violate Shabbat.
In another incident, a PIBA official threatened an American yeshiva student, saying he would put him in handcuffs if he asked to have his passport back again.
PIBA officials routinely confiscate travelers’ passports for lengthy periods of time without informing them of the reason.