Was Israel wrong to close its borders to World Jewry?

Should Israel craft its policies based on the interests of the Israeli people or the entire Jewish people?
An empty departures gate at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv in September 2020 (Photo: Hen Mazzig via Twitter)

We’re curious…

As Omicron cases surge in Israel, the country’s Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash concluded that travel bans were “futile in preventing the spread of coronavirus,” Haaretz reported. This past Sunday, the country reopened its skies to vaccinated foreign travelers.

Israel has kept its borders closed to tourists for most of the pandemic. At the beginning of November, the country started to allow vaccinated foreigners to enter the country but by the end of the month, due to the Omicron variant, it shut its doors again to all non-citizens, including Diaspora Jews. Other countries also closed their borders due to Omicron.

The closure prompted an outcry from some Diaspora leaders who argued that Israel, as the Jewish state, must remain open to Jews around the world. South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, for example, called the move a “moral disgrace,” arguing that the Israeli government was effectively saying to Diaspora Jews, “You are not part of us, we are not part of you.”

In early December, responding to their frustration, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wrote a letter to North American Jewish leaders in which he expressed sympathy for the “severe hardship and disruption” caused by the policy. At the same time, he wrote, his “primary responsibility” as prime minister was to protect Israel’s citizens and avoid a national health crisis.

Although Diaspora Jews who are vaccinated can once again visit Israel, we wanted to unpack the interesting debate that unfolded on this issue in recent months. What did Israelis and Diaspora Jews think about the temporary border closures? Should Israel have kept its skies open to the rest of the Jewish world, or was it justified in attempting to protect citizens from the coronavirus?

Why this matters

This story is generating debate on what the relationship between Israeli and World Jewry is and what it means for Israel to be a Jewish state. Here are a few of the questions and big ideas being raised:

  • Mifgash (person-to-person “encounter”) between Israeli and World Jewry is critical to the relationship. Israel programs like Birthright, Root One and Masa are based on the premise that real encounters between Diaspora Jews and Israelis strengthen the bonds between the two communities. What are the implications of pausing these opportunities for Israeli and Diaspora Jews to be in each other’s physical presence?
  • What does it mean to be a Jewish state? Many Diaspora Jews opposed Israel’s border closure on the grounds that the Jewish state must remain open to all Jews, no matter the challenge to doing so. If Israel is truly the Jewish national home, then why were the borders closed to Diaspora Jewry? Should Israel craft its policies based on the interests of the Israeli people or the entire Jewish people?
  • The different perspectives in this debate have a long history. In a blog post, Daniel Gordis argued that this is a continuation of a conversation that Israeli and Diaspora Jews have been having ever since the founding of the state. He told the story of the debate between philanthropist Jacob Blaustein and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on what the relationship between Israeli and World Jewry should look like. Gordis suggested that this is an opportunity to “speak openly about what the obligations and prerogatives of each community on opposite sides of the Atlantic ought to be.”

Diversity of perspectives

Israeli and Diaspora leaders expressed a full range of views on the border closure.

Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai originally defended the government’s decision to shut its borders, acknowledging that the policy was “damaging ties,” but asserting, “For Israelis, it’s their country and we must let them return. For everyone else, we’ll have to wait and see.”

But two weeks later, as the travel bans remained in place, Shai changed his position and urged Prime Minister Bennett to find ways to let Diaspora Jews into the country.

“For the first time in history, Israel has closed its doors repeatedly to the Jewish people…without taking into account the consequences of Israeli policy on the fabric of relations,” Shai wrote in a letter to Bennett. “The voice of our sisters and brothers, Diaspora Jews, must be taken into account and be heard in the government. This is my personal and ethical obligation, the mandate I was entrusted with.”

One Diaspora leader who opposed the policy was Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations CEO William Daroff. In a Jerusalem Post op-ed, Daroff lamented that the decision had “created a significant disconnect between Israel and the global Jewish Diaspora.”

“Israel must remain a sanctuary for Jews from around the world,” he wrote. “The State of Israel maintains an implicit contract with the entire Jewish Diaspora, wherein Israel will always be a place of refuge.” This “once iron-clad contract” had been “temporarily suspended,” he argued.

“It is imperative for all of us to reconstitute this critical relationship,” Daroff concluded, calling on the Israeli government to craft entry policies with greater “empathy and compassion for their Jewish brothers and sisters across the globe.”

South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein agreed, stating, “They have no moral or spiritual right to deny Jews entry into the Land of Israel.” He argued that the government should apply the same entry rules to Israeli citizens and other Jews, adding that the current policy violated the Jewish state’s “reason for being.”

Meanwhile, Ariel Kendel, CEO of Qualita, an organization that supports French aliyah, underscored how this policy had been particularly painful for Diaspora Jews with family members in Israel.

Jews “who convinced their kids to immigrate to Israel and serve in the IDF and fulfill the Zionist dream, discovered that since the outbreak of the coronavirus, that entry to Israel is for citizens only, which has prevented them from visiting their families and has caused much damage,” Kendel wrote in an op-ed for the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon.

However, not all Diaspora Jewish leaders agreed that Israel’s policy was misguided. Rabbi Jonathan Muskat of Young Israel of Oceanside, an Orthodox congregation in Long Island, voiced his understanding and support of the travel ban, writing in a Times of Israel op-ed, “It is completely legitimate to close the borders to Diaspora Jews for a limited amount of time while the government reasonably feels that it is doing so for the well-being of its citizens.”

“I do not subscribe to the argument that because Israel is the Jewish state, then all Jews must be let in immediately to the country,” Muskat explained. “This is not a situation when Jews are being persecuted in the Diaspora for their religion and they need a refuge to protect them and Israel is closing its doors to them. This is, hopefully, a temporary situation.” 

Meanwhile, Rena Bakst, an Israeli citizen who lives in Netanya, pointed out the practical challenges of opening the borders only to Jews. “How is Israel’s border control supposed to determine who is Jewish? Should tourists bring a letter from a rabbi?” she asked sarcastically.

Danny Danon, former Israeli ambassador to the U.N., proposed a compromise to solve the problem, arguing in a Jewish News Syndicate op-ed that Israel should find ways — such as with vaccination and quarantine requirements — to open its doors to Jews living abroad.

Danon argued that the relationship between Israeli and World Jewry transcends physical boundaries. “Our relationship as one people regardless of where we live will continue to be our main strength,” he wrote. “Our bonds go beyond the restrictions, beyond Covid and beyond boundaries…We must not allow the temporary closure of skies and borders to affect our special relationship.”

Subscribe to This Week Unpacked

Each week we bring you a wrap-up of all the best stories from Unpacked. Stay in the know and feel smarter about all things Jewish.