At this time of angry anti-government demonstrations, it was surely the most peaceful and serene protest of the week.
Picnic blankets were spread out in a suburban park in Kfar Saba next to the home of Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. As the sun set, a group of about 20 Israelis celebrated the beginning of Tu B’Av, the Jewish equivalent of Valentine’s day with wine, cheese, crackers, and flowers.
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What was wrong with the picture? On each blanket, every person sat alone, next to a screen. They shared the romantic setting by laptop, tablet or smartphone with their loved ones around the world - from Sweden to Berlin, Maine to Seattle. Each protester had a sign reading: “Relationships can’t survive on Zoom! Let us meet our loved ones!”
The distress of family members cut off from each other as a result of coronavirus restrictions has made headlines since the pandemic led to unprecedented worldwide border shutdowns in March.
In Israel, beginning on March 18 and throughout the early weeks of the pandemic, the restrictions forbidding non-citizens from entering the country were iron-clad. As infection rates began declining in May and as separated families began putting pressure on government officials, some allowances were made to allow non-citizen family members willing to undergo a 14-day quarantine once they entered Israel to enter the country.
Gradually, some legally married spouses and minor children of Israelis who are not citizens have begun to get permission to enter on a case-by-case basis - but some continue to be refused.
For those in long-term unmarried relationships with non-citizen partners abroad, the door to Israel continues to be shut tight. And many who previously believed their separation was merely a temporary inconvenience are realizing that there is no foreseeable end to their predicament.
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The situation of people depending on long-distance visits to preserve their relationships received attention this week with the news that the government was permitting 19,000 non-citizen students to enter the country for yeshiva and university studies and gap-year programs.
Back in the park next to Ashkenazi’s house, most of the picnickers said that they did not begrudge foreign students the opportunity to come study in Israel, but the glaring double standard made their already-frustrating situation more painful.
“I understand that it’s important for them to come,” said Lior Ilan whose fiance, Veronica Thibodau lives in Orchard Beach, Maine, in the U.S. “But we are important, too. Our partners wouldn’t be coming here for some kind of frivolous vacation. They are family. The main difference between us and the yeshiva programs, it seems, is the fact that they have a political lobby and we don’t.”
Ilan, 56, strolled around the park with a beer in one hand and a tablet in the other, where Thibodau was on screen, absorbed in her workday. Ilan is a victim of double misfortune. He is a career tour guide - which is how he first met Thibodeau, and so, the coronavirus has robbed him of his income as well as his life partner.
“It couldn’t really be worse,” he acknowledged, “But I try not to dwell on it. I’ve basically become a vampire - when her workday in the U.S. ends, it is 1 am here, and so we spend overnights together online: talking, watching Netflix together. I miss her terribly. It is awful to be out of work, and if she could come here, at least I would have someone to lean on. We’d be going through it together.”
Appeals to the Israeli consulate in Boston and “letters to literally every single member of Knesset” requesting permission for her to come see him have been fruitless. They have been told that unmarried couples in which the foreign partner does not “center their lives” in Israel - spending 180 days in the country, don’t have a chance, even if they are willing to quarantine and take a COVID test. Ilan does not currently hold a visa to enter the United States. Obtaining one at the moment, he said, is impossible.
His enforced separation, he said, feels like a “betrayal” from the country that he has dedicated his career showing off to tourists.
“I expect my government to recognize that this is a basic right - and I shouldn’t feel like the Interior Ministry is my enemy and that is how I feel - like my country is tormenting me instead of helping me, like I am being punished or am a second class citizen for being in love with someone who lives abroad. These are people’s lives they are messing around with.” And, to the degree that most of the foreign partners are not Jewish “it feels like xenophobia.”
“It’s really a scandal,” said Gabi Lasky, an Israeli human rights attorney who is preparing to file a suit in the coming days on behalf of the separated families in Israel’s Supreme Court. “We have the right to family, the right to not be discriminated against. This is a disproportionate response that’s without basis and not topical, because there’s no legal reasoning that justifies discriminating against unmarried or same-sex couples.”
Officially recognized families
In June, Israel released guidelines paving the way toward family reunification — for people with recognized marriages in Israel. In July, it updated those guidelines to include married couples where one of the spouses is not an Israeli citizen, but those guidelines still mandate that the non-Israeli needed to have been in Israel for at least 90 days in 2019. Updated guidelines stated that foreigners who had submitted an application to register their relationship in Israel could enter the country, pending approval of the Interior Ministry.
Sabine Haddad, a spokesperson for Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, a division of the Interior Ministry, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the couples protesting Israel’s guidelines are only those who have no actual proof that they’re together.
“The Population Authority gives permits to hundreds of couples to enter,” she wrote in response to a JTA inquiry. “You’re talking about couples where no one knows they’re a couple except them and the press. Because according to the current rules, every registered couple receives a permit.”
Nearly all of the attendees at the Tu B’Av picnic had met each other virtually through their Facebook group “Families Want to Reunite.”
Ilan waved a familiar hello to Arbel Sisso, 33, a biomedical engineer from Rehovot who sat cross-legged on her picnic blanket, longingly eyeing her Brazilian Jewish boyfriend Roberto Sonnino, 32 on her laptop screen. “This is a lonely Tu B’Av,” she said sadly.
Sisso said she met Sonnino, a Microsoft employee, a year and a half ago when she was studying at the University of Washington in Seattle. The two have been travelling back and forth every two months to see each other since she returned to Israel in September of 2019. Sonnino had just secured a transfer to Microsoft Israel and was about to obtain an Israeli work visa when the pandemic hit.
“The skies closed and the visa process was shut down. And since Roberto isn’t an Israeli citizen, he can’t visit as a tourist,” she says. “I’ve tried everything with the Immigration Authority, but he can’t come in. I can’t travel there because I would have to quarantine for two weeks when I return. I work in a lab, and can’t afford to miss that much work.”
Alongside Sisso sat Mayan Tsuk-Ran, 27, from Mevasseret Zion who was sharing her evening long-distance with her Berliner boyfriend, Binyamin Hauf, 28. Tsuk-Ran, an opera singer who has just completed her studies at the Jerusalem Music Academy, met Hauf when she travelled with a choir to perform in Germany a year and half ago.
“He was the handsome photographer,” she smiled - who asked to be put in touch with the “curly-haired singer” he had noticed. “He sent me a Facebook message and the rest is history,” Tsuk-Ran said, toasting Hauf on her laptop with a glass of wine via her laptop.
Last summer, she stayed with Hauf in Berlin for three months, and they couple made plans to move in together once she completed her studies.
Hauf was inspired by the Israeli group to form a group of his own in Germany and it seems their lobbying efforts have borne fruit, Tsuk-Ran said: the German foreign minister said that unmarried couples will be permitted to reunite in Germany at the end of August. “Our fingers are crossed,” she said. “If it doesn’t happen, I may just start swimming.”
Next to the women, reclining on his blanket wearing a purple maskat Oren Shemesh, 51 from Moshav Aderet, who was virtually sharing his evening with Claudia Doron, 52 in Buchs, Switzerland. They met when Doron’s daughter served as a lone soldier in the Israeli army and Shemesh and his then-wife served as her host family. Later, when the young woman got married, Doron came to Israel for the wedding. Both Shemesh and Doron were divorced by then – and romance bloomed.
Over the course of the past year Doron and Shemesh have visited each other nine times - neither can consider permanent relocation because each still have school-aged children in their home countries. Shemesh is one of the lucky members of the group – Switzerland recently announced it will allow non-citizen partners to enter the country, and Shemesh already has an upcoming interview at the Swiss embassy to obtain a visa. For now, though, Doron can’t travel in the opposite direction.
The blanket protest was organized by Plia Kettner, administrator of the Facebook group, whose partner Erik lives in Sweden and who testified in the Knesset earlier this month regarding their plight.
Presiding over the picnic, she said the group had been pioneers of a sort - after they started their campaign, similar groups emerged in Europe for couples divided by the pandemic under the banner “Love is Not Tourism.”
That group - whose Facebook page has more than 15,000 members – she said, was, at first focused on reunited couples within Europe, when borders were closed between members of the European Union.
Now that the EU has opened up, they have rechanneled their efforts to helping couples who are not EU citizens, with points of success. In addition to the pending changes in Germany, other countries - including Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands will now allow in unmarried romantic partners.
Kettner, whose boyfriend founded the group in Sweden, said she is involved in the international movement - and is part of a group of administrators of Facebook groups from around the world.
“But I only have a certain amount of time and energy,” she said, as the picnickers began folding up their blankets and preparing to return home –alone. “And my struggle is here in Israel. Israeli citizens have to a family life. And in 2020, families come in many shapes and sizes and nationality. It’s fine if these yeshiva students want to come to Israel to study. But their right to come here shouldn’t mean more than our rights to be with our loved ones who are foreign citizens, whether or not they are Jewish. Saying that they they do carries the scent of racism.”
JTA contributed to this report.