In banning Jews who are not Israeli citizens from entering the country, Prime Minister Bennett and his government are doing fundamental and lasting damage to Israel’s very identity as a Jewish state.
Of course, no government should endanger the health of its citizens. But there is a simple solution: apply the same health and safety protocols required of Israeli citizens, even those returning from “red zones” – PCR tests, vaccination and quarantine. Israeli health officials evidently deem the health risk to be low enough, providing these conditions are met. If this were not the case, even citizens would be refused entry. So why, then, are Jews who are not citizens barred if they meet these same requirements?
The virus does not distinguish between those who hold an Israeli passport and those who don’t.
By the Israeli government discriminating between Israeli citizens and Jews, they endanger the identity of Israel as a Jewish state.
The State of Israel is not like any other, which only has a legal and moral duty for the welfare of its own citizens. In its heart and soul, it is a Jewish state. Israel’s founders understood the deep significance of this idea, giving it expression in their drafting of the Declaration of Independence:
“ERETZ-ISRAEL [(Hebrew) – the Land of Israel, Palestine] was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.” – Knesset, Official Gazette: Number 1; Tel Aviv,5 Iyar 5708, 14.5.1948 Page 1
The founders of the state made this vision practical most powerfully through the Law of Return of 1970, which grants any Jew on Earth the right to move to Israel at any point and receive Israeli citizenship. No other country has an equivalent law.
The modern State of Israel is essentially the historic enterprise of reestablishing Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, as an expression of the Divine mission and birthright of every Jew. No Israeli government has the moral right to deny a fellow Jew entry to the Land of Israel.
Israel’s reason for being is as a Jewish state and its mandate is the entirety of the Jewish people, even those who are not its citizens. By imposing this discriminatory ban the Israeli government is acting as any other liberal western democracy and not as a Jewish state. A Jewish state does not close its gates to fellow Jews, especially at a time of need. A Jewish state does not concurrently allow in contestants for a international beauty pageant, while denying the relatives of its own olim, causing heartbreak as families are separated from their new immigrant relatives.
A Jewish state does not deny entry to young Jews who are coming to study in Israel. A Jewish state does not turn away fellow Jews on Shabbat eve, forcing them to desecrate Shabbat. A Jewish state would treat all Jews, whether they hold Israeli passports or not, with equal respect, dignity and worth. And that is what makes these current regulations unacceptable.
The very identity of the State of Israel is at stake. If Israel loses its identity as a Jewish state, it will lose its very reason for being. Indeed, if the State of Israel is just like any other country, if it’s just another country that happens to be located in the Middle East – is it really worth fighting for? Is it worth all the blood that has been shed, all the suffering and sacrifice to maintain just another democracy in such a violent hate-filled region? Only if it is a Jewish state – something enduring, lofty and more noble than a mere political enterprise; an expression of Jewish peoplehood and our historic destiny; a vehicle for the continuity of the Jewish people, for our Divine values and mission – only then is the sacrifice justified.
But if you ignore that sacred charge and denude Israel of its Jewish identity rooted in our Divine heritage of the generations, you erode the very foundations on which the State of Israel was established. You negate the very feelings that brought Jews back to their ancestral homeland in their droves, to live in the land and work the land and fight bravely for its existence. Without these eternal Jewish values – without this inviolable Jewish identity – the resolve of its citizens to fight to make Israel safe and successful and the impetus for Diaspora Jews to make aliyah and support Israel in every way becomes severely weakened.
If Israel is not a Jewish state, it calls into question the sustainability of the country and its very reason for being. The meaning of Israel, and the purpose for which it was established, will be lost. And that will be a tragedy of epic proportions.
The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa.