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Israel’s travel ban risks damaging relations between Israel and the diaspora, Jewish leaders charge

South Africa's chief rabbi says government's message is essentially: "You are not part of us, we are not part of you, and our borders are locked to you”

Passengers at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on December 1, 2020. (Photo: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Amid growing frustration voiced by the Jewish community abroad, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Tuesday he intends to restore international travel to Israel “as soon as possible,” but was vague about exactly when the borders would reopen.

Israel’s strict travel ban on foreign citizens has prevented millions of Jews and Christians worldwide from visiting the Holy Land since the outbreak of the pandemic. After a brief reopening, Israel's border closed once again on Nov. 28 and has remained shut since.

Bennett addressed the issue of Jewish travel to Israel on Tuesday. 

“The topic of diaspora Jews is very important to me. It is very close to my heart, and we will do everything to bring things back on track as quickly as possible,” Bennett said.

But many Jewish leaders say the damage is already done. 

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations, said the travel ban has harmed Israel’s relations with Jews worldwide. 

“The State of Israel has a contract with the diaspora, wherein Israel is a place of refuge for us, where there is a safety net that exists for all of us. That contract has been suspended,” said Daroff. 

Daroff’s criticism was echoed by other Jewish leaders including the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Warren Goldstein, who also blasted Israel’s travel ban on diaspora Jews as “a moral disgrace.” 

“The Israeli travel ban is doing serious damage to relations between the State of Israel and diaspora Jewry. It is causing terrible human suffering, it’s dividing families, people can’t come for family celebrations or to just their relatives,” Goldstein said.

The stringent travel restrictions have forced close family members to miss crucial life events such as weddings, births and funerals. Though special exemptions are granted, the application process is lengthy and cumbersome. 

The issue has also harmed aliyah – immigration to Israel – as new immigrants don’t know when they will be able to see their close families abroad. 

The State of Israel was established after the Holocaust with the intention of serving as a safe haven for Jews worldwide. While a nation is primarily responsible for its own citizens, the Jewish state is considered a home for all Jews regardless of their foreign residency and citizenship.

While the purpose of Israel’s travel ban is to reduce the impact of the pandemic on its current citizens, it has undermined the bond between the nation and Jews around the world. 

Goldstein summarized the current crisis between Israel and diaspora Jews. 

“By doing what it is doing the government is saying, ‘You are not part of us, we are not part of you, and our borders are locked to you,’” Goldstein said. 

Christians have also been barred from visiting the Holy Land. Israel’s constantly changing travel policies, broken promises and often-inconsistent restrictions have caused frustration for foreign residents. The government’s travel bans have at times extended to Israelis preventing them from traveling, most recently due to the Omicron outbreak. 

With Omicron already detected in Israel, authorities removed the travel ban for Israelis to many European and African countries. However, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom remain listed as “red” and are, thereby, off-limits to Israelis. This affects many Israeli citizens who have close family in these countries or frequently commute to the U.S. for work. 

Unless reversed soon, Israel’s strict travel ban risks undermining Israel’s relations with Jews and Christians alike, while placing the ailing Israeli tourism sector on long-term life support. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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