Travel ban leaves Diaspora Jews with broken hearts but unbroken bond - opinion

Today, our borders may be blocked temporarily, but our nerve endings remain intertwined, with our hearts still open to one another.

With more countries being declared ‘red,’ travelers converge on Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday. (photo credit: FLASH90)
With more countries being declared ‘red,’ travelers converge on Ben-Gurion Airport on Sunday.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

As the skies empty over Israel once again, with more countries deemed “red,” more flights canceled, more and more people disappointed, we need to see this crisis in proportion.

Some leaders – whom I respect – accuse Naftali Bennett’s government of endangering the special bond uniting Israel with Diaspora Jews. They claim, hysterically, unfairly, that to close Israel to non-Israelis, including Jews, is to “violate the Jewish identity of the Jewish state,” telling Diaspora Jews: “You are not part of us; we are not part of you.”

Really? Isn’t making Covid policy hard enough – and coping with the implications heartbreaking enough – without adding such exaggeration, such guilt?

Few Israeli Zionists today condemn Diaspora Jews for not making aliyah – noncitizens, too, could be accused of saying “we are not part of you”; similarly, Diaspora Jews should avoid condemning the Jewish state for banning fellow Jews due to this ongoing health emergency.

I understand the emotional, economic and ideological toll each shutdown takes. I mourn with my tour guide friends and cab driver friends, my hotel worker friends and travel agency friends, who shudder with each cancellation, knowing their already diminished cash reserves will shrink further. I regret the weddings, funerals, births, and bar/bat mitzvahs that will be missed. I feel the lost hugs and high fives, the smiles and stories. I mourn the shared memories – and, yes, the Zionist ties – not being made.

 Travelers exit the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic testing area at Ben Gurion International Airport as Israel imposes new restrictions on November 28, 2021. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS) Travelers exit the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic testing area at Ben Gurion International Airport as Israel imposes new restrictions on November 28, 2021. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

But I urge people not to take it personally, and not to go where we need not go ideologically.

The bonds uniting the Jewish people are physical and metaphysical. We are indeed family – many of us share bloodlines, DNA, common family homes, experiences. Ultimately, however, it’s our shared abstractions that have kept the Jewish people so vital, for so many millennia in so many different countries. Even when we cannot be together in person, we share common stories and values, hopes and fears, traumas and dramas, in perpetuity.

Today, our borders may be blocked temporarily, but our nerve endings remain intertwined, with our hearts still open to one another.

The fact that, momentarily, an Israeli can return home and a non-Israeli Jew cannot, highlights our differences, but it doesn’t negate our commonalities. In 1948, when the Zionist movement established Israel, Jewish sovereignty formalized a legal gap with Diaspora Jews that had been growing in the decades since the early pioneers started returning to the Land of Israel, not just to love it, but to live in it.

Now, more than ever, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel loom large in the Jewish imagination and cosmology. Israel remains a keystone to modern Jewish identity, especially for the overwhelming majority of nonreligious Jews. The Birthright revolution has popularized the identity Zionist revolution: Ideologically, Israel today is much less about saving Jewish bodies from persecution; it’s mostly about renewing Jewish souls, at home and abroad.

Still, in modern political terms, when you choose to be a citizen somewhere, it has implications. Citizenship determines where you pay taxes – and how much. These same oh-so-offended Diaspora Jews don’t seem to be complaining about their lower tax rates. Citizenship determines whether and where you serve in the army. These outraged ideologues aren’t volunteering to patrol Israel’s borders either. And, in the Age of Covid, citizenship determines where you hunker down – and where you sometimes cannot reach.

Still, the heartbreaking act of turning Jews away from the Jewish state – like the heartbreaking act of turning non-Jews away – doesn’t break any bonds permanently, it only disrupts plans temporarily. It does not change Israel’s character as the Jewish homeland, just as barring Christians at Christmastime does not negate the Holy Land’s centrality in Jesus’s story.

So, no, don’t blame Bennett for making tough choices Israel’s best health experts advised.

BUT THERE are two practical proposals Diaspora Affairs Minister Nahman Shai, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz should explore with the prime minister.

First, the exceptions process risks becoming farcical. Too many stories are accumulating about mountains of paperwork, sloppy proceedings and illogical rulings.

For example, until it was changed just days ago, a grandparent could be welcomed in for a birth, but not a wedding. When too many such misfires become routine, our leaders need to reconceptualize, redesign, and implement more effectively.

Second, there was the outrageous story of the friends of Eli Kay, the South African murdered by the Hamas Old City terrorist, who were bullied by security officials at Ben-Gurion Airport when their plane landed from South Africa as Omicron hit. Beyond reporting “we were treated like criminals,” by being kicked out of the country late Friday afternoon they were forced to violate the Sabbath.

Why haven’t they received an apology already and warm invitations to return? Count this column as the first!

More broadly, for years, too many of us have heard about visitors at Ben-Gurion treated harshly for security reasons – that’s problematic enough and demands fixing. Health issues require even more sensitivity – especially on Fridays in a Jewish state.

The officials dealing with travelers – who undoubtedly are working under great strain – require better (some????) sensitivity training.

Every traveler should receive a small card in multiple languages, listing their basic rights and providing some emergency numbers they can call, including a possible-Sabbath-violation hotline.

And if these health and security officials need any trainers or reinforcements – just remember, there are many unemployed, super-friendly, multilingual, charismatic, diplomatic, temporarily grounded tourism workers who would be thrilled to help!

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was published recently by PublicAffairs of Hachette.