By closing its borders, Israel is asking olim to choose

How can the country we love, contribute so much to, and sacrifice for, ask us to choose between our families and our country?

 AN EMPTY arrival hall at Ben-Gurion Airport does not bode well for ‘olim.’ (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
AN EMPTY arrival hall at Ben-Gurion Airport does not bode well for ‘olim.’
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

When I told my parents I was making aliyah, they were upset. How could I choose to live so far from home? My dad was even more worried because I was going to be living somewhere where he would not be able to drive to me if need be and would have to solely rely on air transport.

I was confused – I had not lived at home for the previous seven years of undergrad, work and grad school, having lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York – each thousands of miles, multiday road trip distances – from my hometown of Vancouver, Canada. I always managed to go back home for visits, and did not understand why living in Israel would be any different. I was just a flight or two away.

After living in Israel for five years, the last two of which have been through a global pandemic, I am starting to think that my dad might be right.

Like most other countries, Israel’s travel policies have been chaotic and reactive throughout COVID-19. Foreigners have been denied entry to Israel for nearly the whole of the two years, except for a number of “exceptions,” with the government alleging this “travel ban” is directed at tourists.

But olim know that for us, foreigners are not tourists simply coming to hike Masada. “Tourists” are our parents, our siblings, our children, our grandparents.

New children olim from France departing the airplane in Israel (credit: NOGA MALSA)New children olim from France departing the airplane in Israel (credit: NOGA MALSA)

The government claims the “exceptions” are sufficient to provide rights to olim, yet a sibling is not considered relevant enough to help with the birth of a sister’s newborn. And a parent who wants to enter to help a sick child will need letters from doctors in Hebrew, not only attesting to how sick the child is, but why only the parent, and not anyone in Israel, can provide the care. Then, even after providing all the evidence deemed necessary, the application will still be under the highly subjective scrutiny of junior bureaucrats.

Causing even more anxiety to the olim population is the ever-changing categorization of our home countries as “red,” denying us the right to leave Israel to go home at critical times of need without permission from the government. Again, the state sets up a laundry list of exceptions to attempt to address the vital need of Israelis to exit. However, again, we olim are at the mercy of bureaucrats, and must plead our cases to be with families.

When working in the Knesset as political aides to former MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, we saw firsthand how flawed this exit permit process is.

Want to visit an immediate family member who, God forbid, is dying of cancer? Be ready to be asked to provide evidence that they are really dying, and that the trip cannot possibly wait until whenever the government decides to “un-red” your home country.

Add to this the unknown amount of time it may take to receive your permit, and that because you cannot just hop on a plane as you might have in the past, you might not make it in time.

The security blanket olim once had is gone. It has made Israel much farther from home than it once was, and this distance is unbearable. How can the country we love, contribute so much to, and sacrifice for, ask us to choose between our families and our country?

No other Israeli with family residing in Israel is asked to not see their family for two years or to apply for a permit to assist a family member during a desperate time of need.

More thoughtful policy, not more “exceptions,” recognizing the unique circumstances of olim, is an urgent need and is possible to achieve while simultaneously maintaining the public health of all Israelis.

A failure to implement such policy – effectively preventing olim from regular contact with our families – will undoubtedly be costly. When asked to choose family or Israel, many will surely choose family. Israel will lose talented members of its society, and those who leave will lose the lives we have worked so hard to build.

But with the state yet again labeling our homes “red” and denying our loved one’s entry, this unfortunate choice might have to be made.

The writer was born and raised in Vancouver and lives in Jerusalem. She worked as a political aide to former MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh.