It was inappropriate for Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein of South Africa, whom I often admire, to publish his recent piece in The Jerusalem Post criticizing the government for preventing Diaspora Jews from entering the country due to the Omicron strain of corona.
Israel has an overriding duty primarily, if not exclusively, to the citizens and other lawful residents who live within her borders from the Mediterranean to Judea and Samaria, who pay income and VAT taxes, and who sustain her by their presence and self-sacrifice.
Yes, Israel does bear unique responsibilities to the greater Jewish world. That is why her cabinet uniquely includes a Diaspora Affairs minister. Israel sometimes must consider how her policies potentially might bolster or wreak havoc among Jews elsewhere. She is the custodian of the Western Wall’s sanctity. If she adopts laws that disrupt traditional approaches to conversions to Judaism, imagine the chaos to Jewish lineage worldwide. In situations where Jews face mortal danger, her doors must be open as widely as she can maintain them ajar for their refuge without endangering her own security.
But Israel has absolutely no obligation to maintain wide-open borders to accommodate Jews in Cape Town or Johannesburg who have opted to make their lives and pursue their hoped-for fortunes in Exile, whether they be South Africans baking challah or Americans cooking books; whether Israel is refusing to serve as an escape hatch for a Meyer Lansky, or a welcome mat for South Africans who want to pay shiva calls, or New Yorkers who want to attend a brit, bar mitzvah, or wedding, Israel has a primary obligation to protect her borders as she sees fit – not only from military invasion, but also from the threat of epidemiological catastrophe.
It is not clear whether and how Israeli health actually will be amplified or deterred by red-lighting travel to and from other countries. But that is for Israel to decide, and she owes no obligation whatsoever to Chief Rabbi Goldstein or to me or to anyone else, as she decides, to the best of her leaders’ abilities, how best to defend her borders from the Omicron variant of corona or the next variant that surely awaits its turn.
When my wife of 21 years, Ellen of blessed memory, the love of my life, died in July 2020, we suddenly had to contend with how to bring her to Israel from California to rest in the land we had purchased for her and me at Eretz HaChaim cemetery in the Rabbinical Council of America section. On Shabbat morning days before she passed, her 98.6 Fahrenheit temperature (37 degrees Celsius) suddenly escalated in an hour’s time beyond 103.1 degrees (39.5 C). The doctors could not explain so sudden a jump and theorized she had contracted COVID, so they immediately tested her. Moments after the test, her fever plummeted back to normal. The doctors were mystified.
Later that week, our local burial society reported that Israel would not allow any deceased into the country for burial unless they had just had a negative corona test. But dead people do not get corona tests. What was I supposed to do for this wonderful lady who had performed so much kindness in her life, who had consoled so many mourners? Did I need to buy an additional plot in California, bury her here, and then exhume her a year or two later and re-inter there? How horrible!
Suddenly it hit me: That test from Shabbat had come back negative. Accordingly, she was cleared to be transported into Israel.
I was reminded of the Talmudic account that even amid the death of Bar Kochba’s myriads at the brutal hands of Rome, God still performed miracles – even for the deceased. The Romans had ordered that mounds of Beitar’s Jewish corpses not be buried but instead left publicly to rot. However, their corpses remained fresh for years, attesting to God’s omnipresent miracles even at moments when His Plan calls for tragedy.
Here, too, Ellen would enter Israel without delay because of a miracle, a baffling phenomenon that qualified her for a COVID test that otherwise would have been pointless to administer during her final week’s isolation.
There was one more matter. Israel would not allow me in for the funeral. I would have had to isolate first for 14 days. I would not have been able to attend the funeral nor to sit shiva with family. Yet this lady was the embodiment of virtually every verse of the Eishet Chayil (Woman of Valor) biblical poem in Proverbs 31. My heart trusted in her, the most reliable, noble, and honest person I ever knew. And now I could not be at her funeral.
Yet that too turned into a blessing. A young man whose family had become close to Ellen and me in our congregation, who had made aliyah as a hayal boded, a lone soldier, and who subsequently met a wonderfully darling religious lady in Israel with British roots, offered to deliver any eulogy I would write. So the circumstances compelled me to compose the most meaningful eulogy I ever penned in my 40 years in the rabbinate. I arranged for the funeral to be telecast over the Internet for family, shul members and friends, and then taught myself how to create a YouTube channel to upload that video online. As a result, at least an extra thousand people “attended” that funeral and heard that eulogy.
No one definitively knows the right public policy for corona. But I do know this: Israel had every right to regulate whether Ellen could come in, whether I could come in, and under what terms. Israel owes no special consideration – not to Chief Rabbi Goldstein, not to me – while he and I live in the Exile and as Israel protects her population from a terrible foreign invader, the corona variant.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, a law professor and senior rabbinic fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values, is a congregational rabbi and senior contributing editor at The American Spectator. His book, General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine, explored the 1982 war in Lebanon and the libel trial that followed.