Despite COVID-19 Travel Ban, Israel Lets in 70 Evangelicals to Volunteer in Settlements

Meanwhile, most Jews are still barred from entering Israel. 'Several different people in the government' helped to obtain the visas, group's marketing director tells Haaretz, in what appears to be the first such exception for agriculture sector

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Volunteers from Hayovel work in the West Bank picking grapes and pruning, 2018
Volunteers from Hayovel work in the West Bank picking grapes and pruning, 2018Credit: Kyle S Mackie
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Although Israel’s borders have been largely closed to non-citizens since the coronavirus outbreak, volunteers from a Christian evangelical organization have obtained special government permission to enter the country in order to help with the grape harvest on West Bank settlements.

Roughly 70 volunteers from Hayovel, an organization headquartered in Missouri, have been awarded visas so that they can travel to Israel and pick grapes for settler-owned wineries. The grape harvest season typically runs from August through October.

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Luke Hilton, the marketing director of Hayovel, told Haaretz that “several different people in the government” had helped the organization obtain the three-month tourist visas for its volunteers. He would not provide names or any other details.

Under regulations in force for the past six months, only Israeli citizens are allowed to enter the country. Exceptions include foreign spouses and children of Israeli nationals, immigrants coming under the Law of Return, "lone soldiers" (Israeli army volunteers from the Jewish Diaspora), and relatives invited to participate in Jewish life cycle ceremonies. Last month, the Interior Ministry announced that 12,000 yeshiva students and another 5,000 foreign exchange students and participants in Masa educational and social programs, aimed at young Jewish adults, would also be allowed into the country.

Some Jewish community leaders have criticized Israel for closing its borders to Jews who lack citizenship during the global health crisis.

Hayovel appears to be the first case of a special exception being made for agricultural field hands, who were not already living in the country. A spokesman for the kibbutz movement confirmed that none of Israel’s approximately 230 kibbutzim had obtained permission to bring in volunteers from abroad to help out in the fields since the coronavirus outbreak.

Hayovel’s volunteers began arriving in mid-August. The first group completed its 14-day mandatory quarantine period a week ago. To help defray some of the costs for these volunteers, Hayovel launched a $25,000 fundraising campaign.

Founded 15 years ago, Hayovel has brought a total of 3,000 Christian volunteers to the West Bank settlements, most of them from the United States. They are housed on a purpose-built campus on the outskirts of the Har Bracha settlement, near the Palestinian city of Nablus.  Some of the volunteers work in the vineyards that belong to the Tura winery in Har Bracha, while others work in the Psagot winery in the settlement of the same name, near Ramallah. Unlike volunteers on kibbutzim, who receive room and board in exchange for their work, Hayovel volunteers pay for their accommodations, as well as their airfare. The volunteers include entire families, with children.

As a matter of principle, Hayovel brings volunteers only to West Bank settlements and is not active at all within the so-called Green Line – Israel’s internationally recognized borders. According to its mission statement, Hayovel’s goal is to become “a positive voice from Judea and Samaria into the nations – a voice declaring the amazing, restorative things that we were seeing with our own eyes and touching with our own hands.”

For many years, Hayovel operated under the radar, believing that the less Israelis knew what it was up to, the better. But that changed after Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the spiritual leader of Har Bracha and a leading rabbinic authority in the settlements, ruled that there was no reason Christian volunteers could not work on fields owned by Jewish farmers.

Vineyards belonging to the Psagot winery on lands belonging to the nearby Palestinian village of El Bireh, May 17, 2020.Credit: Alex Levac

The frequently asked questions section of the organization’s website features the following question: “If all Jewish people are wealthy, why volunteer for Jewish farmers?” It provides this response: “Our friends in Israel are not wealthy – in fact, they are often trying hard just to get by. The word ‘ALL’ is usually an exaggeration.”

Hayovel was founded by Tommy and Sherri Waller. The married couple, who have 11 children, are known to have close ties to leaders of the political right in Israel. A few years ago, Hayovel was awarded a small grant by the Strategic Affairs Ministry to help fund its advocacy work on behalf of Israel and the West Bank settlements in Christian communities abroad.

The Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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