Despite Coronavirus, Diaspora Jews Can Still Come to Israel – if They Make Aliyah

Some 800 immigrants have arrived in the country since beginning of March – 500 of them from Russia; Jewish tourists in Israel can no longer change their status to immigrants

A new batch of immigrants arrives to Israel on a Nefesh B'Nefesh flight, August 16, 2018.
Shahar Azran

Israel does not intend to stop immigration because of the coronavirus outbreak but is introducing measures aimed at safeguarding the local population, the Jewish Agency said on Sunday.

Under these precautionary measures, all immigrants will be required to sign a document pledging that they will quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival in Israel; that they have a place where they can quarantine themselves; and that they have arranged in advance for food and other provisions during this period of isolation.

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“Aliyah has never come to a halt, not under any emergency situation. Now as well, the Jewish Agency is doing everything possible under complex circumstances to make sure it does not stop for one moment, while making the utmost effort to look after the health and well-being of the public in Israel, in coordination with all the relevant offices in the country,” a spokeswoman for the organization said in a statement, in response to questions from Haaretz.

Last week, Israel banned all foreign nationals – including Jews – from entering the country. According to regulations published Thursday by the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority, only foreigners whose “center of life” is in Israel or whose spouses and children are Israeli citizens will be granted entry.

Typically, residents who spend at least half the year in the country are considered to have their “center of life” in Israel.

According to figures provided by the Agency, which oversees aliyah, since the beginning of this month some 800 immigrants arrived in Israel from countries around the world. That includes immigrants from France – a country particularly affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Some 500 immigrants – more than 60 percent – came from Russia, which in recent years has been the single largest provider of immigrants to Israel. In addition, immigrants landed in Israel from Brazil, Argentina, Australia, South Africa and the United States.

Indeed, last week, 24 immigrants from the East Coast arrived in Israel on a special flight organized by Nefesh b’Nefesh, a group that handles aliyah from North America.

Under the Law of Return, any person with at least one Jewish grandparent, who is married to a Jew or converted in an established Jewish community is eligible to immigrate to Israel and obtain citizenship automatically. Among the exceptions are individuals who could pose a health risk.

The Agency, however, is not requiring immigrants to take a coronavirus test before boarding planes to Israel. Nor is it imposing any special restrictions at this point on immigration from countries or regions with large numbers of cases.

Until Passover, which begins on April 8, another 250 immigrants are scheduled to arrive in Israel. That includes 73 members of the Falashmura community from Ethiopia.

A flight from Ethiopia that had been scheduled to arrive last week was canceled at the last minute, with passengers informed that the reason was the coronavirus crisis. However, the government bowed to pressure from several Ethiopian-Israeli lawmakers and agreed to reschedule the flight.

About 100 immigrants who had planned to arrive in the country this month – including a small group from Italy, the country hardest hit by the pandemic – postponed their plans, the Agency said.

After Russia, Ukraine has been the second largest provider of immigrants to Israel in recent years. Ukraine closed its borders on March 15, freezing aliyah from that country until further notice.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the largest private philanthropy in Israel, has been active in bringing immigrants to Israel from many of the former Soviet bloc countries in recent years, as well as from France and South America. The fellowship has been recommending that those who can delay their aliyah until early May do so, in the hope that the health crisis will have lessened by then. The Agency has made no such recommendations.

Typically, the peak season for immigration to Israel is in the summer months, when children are on school break.

Although immigrants continue to arrive in Israel on flights from other countries, the Interior Ministry has stopped accepting applications from tourists and other noncitizens based in the country seeking to change their status to immigrant under the Law of Return.

It is common for Jews from abroad to apply for such a status change while they are in the country rather than from abroad. But because Interior Ministry staff are confined to their homes these days due to coronavirus restrictions, such applications can no longer be processed, a spokeswoman said.