MKs vow to fix COVID travel rules for family members of Israelis

“The significance of this topic is crucial to the State of Israel and for the future of the Jewish people,” said MK Simon Davidson.

 Travelers at the Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, September 6, 2021.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Travelers at the Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, September 6, 2021.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

A special hearing on the difficulties encountered by family members of Israeli citizens who wish to visit will be held at the Knesset in the upcoming days, Law and Constitution Committee chairman Gilad Kariv said on Thursday.

The committee devoted part of a recent session to listening to the problems of corona travel regulations raised by representatives of the civil societies familiar with the issue, including former MK Dov Lipman, founder of NGO Yad L’Olim, former MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, and Ronen Foxman from Nefesh B’Nefesh.

“We will hold a serious discussion about this,” Kariv vowed, adding that the hearing will take place either before his committee or the one devoted to interior affairs, and a date will be set as soon as it is decided which forum is more appropriate.

Israel’s borders were closed to foreign nationals for more than 20 months throughout the pandemic. Some exceptions were allowed for close family members to attend life-cycle events or visiting lone soldiers. A special procedure was established in April to allow vaccinated or recovered first-degree relatives of Israeli citizens to receive permission to enter the country.

However, the Health Ministry changed its criteria in September on vaccinated or recovered individuals. To meet the new requirements, visitors need to have been inoculated twice within the previous six months, vaccinated with a booster, recovered with one shot, or recovered within the past six months.

 TRAVELERS LEAVING Israel this week queue up at Ben-Gurion Airport. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI) TRAVELERS LEAVING Israel this week queue up at Ben-Gurion Airport. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)

Beginning November 1, the country reopened its skies to foreign visitors who fulfill these conditions, requiring, in the case of recovered tourists, to present an electronic recovery certificate. At the same time, it canceled the possibility of applying for special permissions as first-degree relatives.

This has left many who were able to visit Israel under the previous system with no possibility to do so now, either because they do not meet the criteria – boosters are still not widely available – or because they cannot prove they meet them.

Israel is part of the European Union Digital COVID Certificate consortium that includes 43 countries that provide mutually recognized electronic documentation. For individuals who are not from these countries, Israeli authorities consider the recovery certificates too easy to forge, and therefore are not recognized.

Yad L’Olim – whose mission is to help olim in their new life in Israel, including in navigating corona bureaucracy – receives dozens of requests for help every day, Lipman said during the meeting.

In order to emphasize the absurdity of the situation, he shared the story of a grandmother in the US, recovered and vaccinated with two shots – but more than six months earlier – who reached out to the NGO earlier in the day because she would not be able to attend her granddaughter’s wedding in Israel in two weeks.

“She raised her granddaughter to be Zionistic and to move to Israel,” Lipman said. “Now the granddaughter is getting married to a fellow immigrant who came to serve as a lone soldier, and we are preventing her grandmother from attending.”

Health Ministry’s Director of the International Relations Division Asher Salmon noted that most countries outside the EU program do not accept recovery certificates.

However, while “it is true that other countries don’t allow recovered to enter, countries like the USA allow people vaccinated more than 180 days earlier to enter,” Lipman said after the meeting. “If we allowed that, it would take care of most of our issues with those recovered. The USA also allows everyone under 18 to enter no matter what. That is one if the greatest issues that we have: children not being able to visit Israel.”

Lipman said a possible solution would be to require those who are recovered to undergo a serological test to prove the presence of antibodies in their blood upon their arrival in Israel.

The opportunity to expand the list of exceptional situations to receive special approval to enter the country will also be examined in the upcoming Knesset hearing.

At the moment, only the parents of a groom or a bride can apply for permission to visit Israel without meeting the vaccination/recovery criteria, while no exception is considered for other relatives or other occasions, including births or bar/bat mitzvahs.

Foxman said that individuals who are immigrating to Israel often encounter problems in boarding their flights because their special status as foreigners about to become Israeli citizens is not recognized under the corona travel outline, and therefore they are not able to present the required documentation to the airlines.

“Jews around the world are feeling that Israel has closed its doors on them and we must be sensitive to this,” said Cotler-Wunsh. “These people have given Israel their most precious possession, their children, and now after finally opening the doors for them to come we have closed them again.”

Kariv and MK Simon Davidson, himself an immigrant to Israel from the former Soviet Union, vowed to find a solution.

“The significance of this topic is crucial to the State of Israel and for the future of the Jewish people,” Davidson said. “We promise that we are not going to leave this issue aside. It is important for me personally and for the members of this committee.”