Joke currently making the rounds in Israel: Woman calls her doctor and says,
“When is corona finally going to be over?” Doctor replies, “What do I look like – a politician?!”
For nearly two years, every world leader has faced a monumental challenge in contending with corona, trying to contain its spread within their country’s population. This is no different for Israel, which has been contending with these new challenges while juggling the least stable political situation in Israel’s electoral history. It’s not easy balancing the health and safety of your citizens with their basic freedoms – especially when elections are held four times in a two-year period.
While politicians making decisions regarding lockdown clearly have to answer to their constituents (read: voters), the political debate for two years has centered around the balance between health and safety and the stagnating economy. However, there has been little mention of how much we are alienating our “extended family” – fellow Jews who have been told for the past 73 years that Israel is their home.
Israel’s poor handling of the pandemic has created a rift between Israel and that extended family abroad, a rift that Israeli politicians must own up to – and fix – immediately.
Since its inception, Jews around the world have become familiar with the mantra that is often repeated by Israel’s leaders: “Israel is the Jewish homeland. Come home. We are here as the home for any and every Jew.”
In just the last few weeks, President Isaac Herzog shared the following at a Jewish Agency event in the UK: “Michal and I have put the issue of relations between the State of Israel and world Jewry as a top item on our priority list, and we intend to invest a lot of time and effort to make sure that all Jews, wherever they are, whatever their denomination, whatever they believe in or don’t believe in, feel at home in the State of Israel.”
Yes, this is an important mantra. Israel’s role as the only Jewish state is important and unique. But during these moments of crisis, it has been a harsh reckoning for Jews around the world that it appears to be mere rhetoric.
Just last week, government ministers voted to ban noncitizens from entering Israel for two weeks due to an outbreak of yet another corona mutation. Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar spoke out against the new restrictions, citing their harshness for arriving Israelis and for putting yet another stop to tourism, noting that such measures have “significant economic costs, at a time when we are on a good economic path.”
Yet we have seen no mention by any of these non-medical-expert-politicians about the impact that shutting Israel’s doors continues to have on our brethren, particularly when they are lumped together with every other tourist that wants to visit.
The very Jews who show up for rallies, write letters, stand up to antisemitism, donate to Israel, visit Israel, pray for Israel, keep homes in Israel, and/or come to Israel several times a year have been repeatedly and abruptly shut out.
The closures, in general, have been frequent and inconsistent with little in the way of explanation, accompanied by confusing bureaucracy and sadly, a profound lack of empathy. But the blanket ban on “foreigners” with no distinction is a slap in the face to everyone that has believed in the special status of Jews in Israel and of Israel in the Jewish people.
Just recently, five members of Eliyahu Kay’s extended family flew “home” to Israel to console their relatives and pay their respects. Because they came from South Africa (which had just been declared a “red” country), they were denied entry into the country after landing.
Not only did the airport personnel treat them like criminals, disregarding any respect for the bereaved and the tremendous sacrifice and the heroism of Eliyahu, but they forced Jews to desecrate the Sabbath for the first time in their lives. This is both a horrifying and unimaginable result of bad government policy.
It isn’t just that truly loyal, close members of the family have been turned away in great numbers, often with drama at the airport;
It isn’t just people (like me) who have been forced to wait with a loved one’s coffin for permission to fly and bury a parent or spouse in the Holy Land;
It isn’t just the mother-of-the-groom who was turned away from the airport in Canada because the restrictions and guidelines she followed to the letter became obsolete overnight;
It isn’t just the tax-paying homeowners who have not been able to enter their own apartments in Israel for the past two years.
No, it’s the added insult to an already opened wound: the countless exceptions made for prominent individuals who fit a political or economic agenda.
“Israel bans all foreigners except beautiful women due to the Omicron variant” read a headline in Newsweek, a reference to Miss Universe contestants from 80 countries who were all allowed exemptions to attend the event in Eilat next week. That is the message Israel is sending to world Jewry – along with everyone else.
While I have no doubt that Israeli officials continue to find themselves in uncharted waters, they need to be reminded of the countless times when they have asked world Jewry to “stand with Israel.”
But they need to remember to stand with world Jewry as well. After all, we are a family, and those familial relationships must be reciprocal.
Israel’s leaders must think long and hard about what steps to take to repair that relationship. We may have to contend with corona and closures for some time to come, but we must contend with them together, with the grace, sensitivity, compassion, and communication one has with family.
The writer, a rabbi, is CEO of Aish and a member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors as a representative of the World Zionist Organization.