I have been involved in public service for seven years, and it has been a true blessing to be able to assist people first via my Knesset office and then as a citizen.
Over that time, there have been painful and often difficult situations in which people needed help, and I, of course, always commiserated over that pain as I tried to render the assistance they needed.
But the past month – ever since Israel suddenly and without warning announced that citizens could not travel home or abroad without approval – has been a unique hell.
The amount of agony and suffering of the people who have reached out for help has taken a serious toll on me emotionally. How could I sleep at night when in the course of just one day I often received requests from my countrymen trying to fly in or out of Israel to be with dying parents, to bury their parents, to prevent their children from whom they were separated for weeks from having mental breakdowns, to make sure they didn’t lose their jobs, or to earn money to put food on their tables?
The process these people had to go through to receive approval to fly was taxing and emotionally draining on them, putting aside the hoops I had to jump through to try to assist them: a case study in bureaucratic malfeasance.
The first problem was the number of times the committee changed hands in just one month.
It began under the auspices of Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was empowered to determine the criteria for allowing Israelis in and out of the country. Steinitz’s chief of staff ran the committee, which worked around the clock via Zoom or in the minister’s office trying to help, eventually approving around 40% of the applications.
Through my connections with Steinitz’s office, dozens of people who met the humanitarian criteria but were not receiving approval did, in the end, obtain permission to travel.
When the committee couldn’t decide on specific requests, the file was passed to the minister to decide. But after one week of being overwhelmed with thousands of applications, Steinitz told the government that his entire office had been taken over by the work of this committee, and that he wanted out.
The committee was then transferred to Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis, led by his ministry’s director general, and moved to a conference room at Ben-Gurion Airport. The committee, which met for 17 hours a day in three shifts, was handed 21,000 applications from Steinitz’s committee that had not even been looked at! And those of us trying to help those in need had to again establish a relationship with the personnel in charge in this new ministry.
Akunis tried to streamline the process for approvals, and in eight days his committee reviewed 24,000 out of 25,000 new requests. But suddenly the government was only allowing 600 people to enter Israel per day, which meant that most of those who received approvals were going to remain stuck abroad or in Israel, since there were no flights to bring them to and from Israel.
By this point, the emails, WhatsApps, Facebook messages and phone calls that I was receiving were sounding more and more desperate. While pushing hard to obtain approvals, I also found myself becoming a sounding board as Israelis cried – literally cried – with desperation as their home lives collapsed, or their wedding dates – wedding dates! – were fast approaching with them stuck in a different country.
When Akunis found out that Transportation Minister Miri Regev made a decision – without consulting or informing the minister in charge of the committee – to increase the number of Israelis allowed to return to 2,000 per day, he told the government secretary that his ministry would no longer oversee the process.
So for the third time in 15 days, the committee changed hands.
It now passed over to Regev, who charged her ministry’s deputy director general with full control over the committee – and those of us involved in helping procure approvals had to once again get to know the new staff while they were first learning the issue and their task. This was a time-wasting process when every hour counted for those who needed to travel. By this point the committee was receiving between 3,000 and 4,000 new requests per day – and steadily increasing.
FOR THOSE whose requests were denied, a mechanism for appeals was established overseen by Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi. Only a small percentage of the appeals were approved, but I want to thank American immigrant Rachel Broyde, who works for Hanegbi, for her efforts along with the minister and other ministry staff for making sure that people’s appeals were being properly reviewed. The problem was that the criteria they had to follow were set from above, and that limited how many cases could receive approval.
Just to capture the total insanity of these past few weeks: The committee’s experts spent a few hours one night debating whether they should allow an Israeli to fly to Switzerland for euthanasia, doctor-assisted suicide. This confused me. The entire reason for the travel ban was to make sure that no mutations enter Israel. As I told my wife, “Unless I am not understanding euthanasia correctly, this man is not returning to Israel!”
And yet, that application captured the committee’s attention for three hours (!) over the legal question of allowing someone to travel to do something that is illegal in Israel. In the meantime, law-abiding Israelis missed their parents’ funerals.
On-the-fly decisions taken on a whim don’t work in the midst of a crisis, and that has been the utter failing over this past month. Thank God, the effort of dedicated advocates for English-speaking immigrants such as MK Michal Cotler-Wunsch, Rabbi Paysach Freedman and his team at Chaim V’Chesed, and the staff at Nefesh B’Nefesh, have not been for naught. The tearful thank-you messages from people I was able to help gave me strength during this difficult time. Surprisingly, even non-English speakers, native Israelis, have been requesting assistance as well, and of course I tried to help them as well.
The nightmare seemed to be coming to an end this week, when the cabinet decided that all Israelis could return to Israel without pre-approval, and that 3,000 would be allowed to return each day. Those who have been vaccinated will not have to enter quarantine, and those who have not been vaccinated will be offered electronic surveillance instead of having to stay at quarantine hotels. In addition, vaccinated Israelis will be allowed to leave Israel without the need for prior approval.
Of course, the cabinet did not answer many questions such as: What is the policy for families with children who are not allowed to be vaccinated? Nevertheless, there was a collective sigh from across the world as Israelis who were turned down or who never even heard back from the committee saw a light at the end of the tunnel.
But the nightmare was not over.
Just a few hours later, Regev unilaterally decided that only 1,000 Israelis would be allowed to return daily, and flights would only be approved from the United States, Kiev, Paris and Frankfurt. That left thousands still stranded. The tunnel darkened once again.
Don’t misunderstand: I am all for strict rules regarding COVID-19, and completely understand the fear regarding mutations of the virus that are developing around the world. But there are ways to address those concerns with a thought-out plan that includes creative solutions, without causing tens of thousands of Israeli citizens to suffer. Sadly, I know of two suicides of people who were waiting to return to Israel and whose situations finally broke them.
Given Minister Regev’s about-face, this nightmare will not end quickly. I only hope that the upcoming election, significant public pressure and petitions to the High Court on which we have been working will lead to sound and fair policies that balance protecting the country from the spread of new mutations, while at the same time preventing citizens from inhumane suffering by securing their most basic civil and human rights.
The writer served as a member of the 19th Knesset.