Opinion

Jewish and Panicked by Coronavirus? Come With Your Guilty Conscience to Israel

Come to a country familiar with overcoming extreme scenarios. Use your right to citizenship to call out Netanyahu’s crass attempts to downgrade Arab citizens' rights

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A man wearing a mask walks in a terminal at Ben Gurion International airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel, February 27, 2020.
A man wearing a mask walks in a terminal at Ben Gurion International airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel, February 27, 2020.Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Are you worried about contracting the coronavirus and not having the necessary health insurance or sufficient funds to deal with the pandemic? Are the hospitals in your town collapsing and the supermarkets emptied by panic buying? Does the collapse of society as we know it seem imminent?

If you are one of an estimated 15 million people around the world who are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return - as Jews or the relatives of Jews - you could assuage all your COVID19-related concerns, and make aliyah. 

Israeli hospitals tend to be noisy and a bit crowded by the standards of some western countries, but the staff are excellent, as well as being fully-trained and experienced in working under emergency conditions. Every medical center has its plan to open up coronavirus isolation tents should there be a surge in patients. It won’t be comfortable, but it will work. And of course, thanks to our socialist founder-fathers (and the often-forgotten founder-mother of the Zionist healthcare system, Henrietta Szold) it’s all free of charge. 

Did I mention that Israel, due to its frequent wars and isolation in the region has the capacity, self-sufficiency and planning to ride out a prolonged period without imports of foodstuffs and other essentials? And even if we run out of toilet-paper, we can always recycle all those freebie copies of Sheldon Adelson’s rag, Israel Hayom.

It may seem like a radical move, and under the current coronavirus regime you would need to go in to self-quarantine upon arrival for two weeks, but in the long-term it would be worth it. 

People pray at the nearly deserted Western Wall after Israel imposed some of the world's tightest restrictions to contain novel coronavirus, Jerusalem, March 12, 2020.
People pray at the nearly deserted Western Wall after Israel imposed some of the world's tightest restrictions to contain novel coronavirus, Jerusalem, March 12, 2020.Credit: AFP

I totally get it if you don’t want to uproot yourself, your family and all your lives and become Israeli, just because of a health scare that could be over in a few weeks or months. But you don’t have to go that far to become an Israeli citizen. All you need to do is come here for a short while. Over the past 72 years, millions of Jews and their relatives have availed themselves of citizenship - and then left. Once you have it, it’s for life. 

As some health experts warn us, coronavirus may just be the first in a series of global plagues, so why not have your Hebrew-speaking bolt-hole ready, just in case? You don’t even have to start paying your taxes in Israel if you continue to conduct your business elsewhere. Whether or not you choose to actually move here full-time, you get a 10-year period of grace before Israel’s tax authorities start looking in to your finances. 

If this sounds flippant to you, or you feel that you would somehow be unfairly taking advantage of Israel’s resources, then check out the Declaration of Independence. This is what we’re here for. The very first item on the list of Israel’s aspirations is to "be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles." And just to make the state’s raison d’etreperfectly clear, it’s repeated once again at the very end of the proclamation in an "appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream - the redemption of Israel."

Sure, the original intention was that Israel should be a haven for persecuted Jews, and three years after the Holocaust, when David Ben-Gurion declared independence, nothing could have been more clear. But there is nothing in the Declaration, or the Law of Return, which precludes Jews from arriving for whatever reason and from finding sanctuary, even if temporary. The Jews of the Diaspora have invested enough over the decades in Israel, be it money or political lobbying, to fully deserve it. 

Pedestrians walk by election billboards featuring posters from the Kachol Lavan and Likud parties, Ramat Gan, Israel, February 18, 2020.
Pedestrians walk by election billboards featuring posters from the Kachol Lavan and Likud parties, Ramat Gan, Israel, February 18, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

And yet, some liberal Jews find it distasteful that Israel allows them to become automatic citizens, with full rights, upon arrival. And they have a point. Why should Jews get all that, seemingly for nothing, while the non-Jewish relatives of Israel’s Arab citizens do not enjoy the same rights? How is it possible to justify that a Jew born in Russia or France or the United States can emigrate to Israel, become a citizen and even promptly go off to live in a West Bank settlement, while millions of Palestinians living there have no political rights to speak of? 

These are valid points which I would have normally countered with the simple argument that fighting for equal rights for others should not have to mean that those who already have rights should lose them. Israel is meaningless if it doesn’t serve as a potential sanctuary for all Jews, if they choose to take advantage of it. That doesn’t have to come at the expense of equality for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens or a state for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. 

But last Wednesday, in a public meeting of his coalition members, Benjamin Netanyahu made it much more difficult to claim that the right of return for Jews to their homeland must remain inviolable. 

Netanyahu’s speech - in which he refused to countenance the 15 Knesset members of the Joint List, representing nearly the entire Arab Israeli community, being part of any political equation - was a denial of another promise, also repeated in the Declaration of Independence, that Israel "will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants…will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex" and directly appealed "to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions."

Ayman Odeh, head of Israel's predominantly Arab Joint List coalition, distributes election pamphlets in the northern Israeli city of Tayibe, February 21, 2020.
Ayman Odeh, head of Israel's predominantly Arab Joint List coalition, distributes election pamphlets in the northern Israeli city of Tayibe, February 21, 2020.Credit: AFP

It’s hardly controversial to state that Israel hasn’t done a stellar job of upholding these commitments over the past 72 years, but no prime minister has ever so blatantly repudiated those sections of the Declaration of Independence as Netanyahu did last week. At the same time, the man who seeks to replace Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, gingerly made a couple of tentative steps this week towards involving the Arab Israeli minority in national decision-making, like never before, by sending his party’s representatives to hold an official negotiation meeting with MKs from all of the four parties of the Joint List

Gantz’s quest to form a minority government, supported from outside by the votes of the Joint List, is looking at this point increasingly forlorn, and the obstacles it faces may prove to be insurmountable. The real issue here isn’t even the full political equality of Israeli Arabs, but the fate of the campaign to oust Netanyahu. But this episode in Israeli politics has become also a possible turning-point in Arab citizens’ integration - and it could still go either way.

Non-Israeli Jews may not have a direct say in Israeli politics, but their right to land tomorrow at Ben-Gurion Airport (quarantine-permitting) and receive a vote and health insurance automatically, should they choose to become Israeli, does give them a voice at this particular juncture. Israel’s founding ethos as stated in the Declaration of Independence puts its role as a haven for all Jews on the same footing with the right to full equality of its non-Jewish citizens. 

This is the moment for Diaspora Jews, as individuals and communities to speak out and say in a clear voice that they expect  those rights to remain inalienable.

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