Israel's Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty states what should be self-evident in a democratic regime: “Every person is free to exit Israel,” and “Every Israeli citizen who is abroad is entitled to enter Israel.” With a wave of the government’s wand these rights have been suddenly denied. Not categorically, of course. They were replaced by an exceptions committee that, by its good graces, will grant (or refuse to grant) a permit to leave Israel or return.
Being able to leave Israel is an important expression of freedom of movement. It’s worth recalling that the struggle Israel conducted against the Soviet Union with international support was mainly over allowing Soviet Jews the right to leave that country. Returning to Israel involves the most basic right of citizenship there is – the right to live in one’s own country. If this isn’t allowed, what’s the point of citizenship?
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Blocking a citizen who left the country from returning is like expelling him from his home. When citizens are not allowed to return with an election looming, they are also being denied a basic democratic right of the first order – the right to vote. Without this there’s nothing left of democracy. It goes without saying that shutting the gates to citizens, suddenly and without warning, severely disrupts the lives of Israelis abroad who seek to return. It cuts them off from their families and their livelihoods, imposes unexpected expenses on them, and causes them distress.
The State of Israel always had an excellent record of concern for its citizens stuck abroad. And yet, suddenly – a turnabout. You can yearn for the country from afar, but you cannot enter. Instead of an outstretched hand, there’s a closed door and a turned back. Deal with it. This type of behavior naturally turns citizens off; they feel alienated and betrayed, and it undermines the personal security of all of us. This is how you destroy the crucial fabric of the relationship between a country and its citizens.
But this isn’t just about the current situation. From the start this government had a wanton attitude toward entering the country, and even when restrictions were imposed, they were not observed. Even when entry to the country was forbidden, thousands of Torah students still streamed in from the United States. The prime minister’s political survival comes before everything. Even when the airports were closed, the land crossings weren’t closed simultaneously. We had volatile policy swings – from encouraging masses to fly to the Gulf states to shutting down the airport. This is not how a responsible government acts; this is how a reckless government acts.
It’s no surprise that no other country is barring its own citizens from returning. This is an Israeli innovation (like the Shin Bet cellphone tracking that put tens of thousands of people who posed no risk into quarantine), which demonstrates contempt for our basic rights. They say there’s no choice; we have to keep the dangerous variants of the virus out of the country. But there is a choice. Public health can be protected by demanding that those who enter be tested before they get on a plane to Israel and again when they enter, and even quarantine when they return. If this is done, you don’t expose residents to infection.
The fact that the government failed miserably in operating a system to neutralize the risk is no good reason for undermining people’s rights even further. The enforcement blunders must be corrected, not used as a springboard for trampling on citizens. When it’s possible to neutralize risk using less offensive means, the state is obligated to use them and not more restrictive ones. Using harsher measures is disproportionate and unconstitutional.
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The exceptions committee that was set up is not part of the solution, but part of the problem. The fact that responsibility for it was passed around between various ministers until it landed with Transportation Minister Miri Regev (a particularly negative example with regard to observing the coronavirus rules) shows that it’s the opposite of proper government. Such a committee, acting with no guidelines, is a surefire recipe for inconsistent, arbitrary decisions and for disruptive influence by interested parties, particularly politicians and their aides.
Given the new political ethos, which rejects the professionalism of the civil service and replaces it with blind loyalty to the political patron, who can trust the committee? Isn’t it clear that the request by a public figure like former lawmaker Nachman Shai would have been immediately granted had he been “one of ours” and not a “leftist traitor”? The claim that the committee doesn’t know the political affiliation of a given applicant is ridiculous. There are those who will make sure the committee knows it. This is how a politically biased mechanism develops, one that has a damaging impact on the upcoming election.
There is a dark side to the government’s behavior during the coronavirus crisis: the use of a crisis to get us accustomed to being stripped of our rights. We’re not talking about the proportional, justified restrictions needed to deal with the pandemic, which no one disagrees with, but with measures that are extreme, drastic, disproportionate and unjustified. Our rights are our protective shield against government arbitrariness. The government is signaling that it can do anything it pleases to us; that you are not citizens in the democratic State of Israel, but subjects in the Kingdom of Netanyahu.