Sixteen immigrants who landed in Israel from India on Monday as part of a large group making aliyah have tested positive for COVID-19, Haaretz has learned.
A group of 160 immigrants was allowed into the country despite fierce objections from Israel’s Health Ministry. Ministry officials had feared they might bring the Indian variant into the country, having been in close contact with other prospective immigrants who had already tested positive. The entire group is currently quarantining in a Jerusalem hotel.
The news comes as COVID-19 infections in Israel have reached a record low, with the country lifting most of its public health restrictions. There are currently fewer than 350 active COVID cases in Israel, and only four new cases were reported on Sunday. Yet, India is one of the hot spots for the pandemic today and Israelis are prohibited from traveling to the country.
According to the original plan, a group of 275 immigrants was due to land at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Monday afternoon. The group, which claims ancestry from one of the lost Israelite tribes, is known as the Bnei Menashe.
Because they are not recognized as Jewish by the state, the Bnei Menashe, who hail from northeastern India, do not qualify for citizenship under the Law of Return. A special government decision was required to bring them to Israel on temporary resident visas so they could undergo formal conversions after arriving in the country.
The government decision, approved last month, was made at the request of Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata.
Thirty-six members of the group had already tested positive for COVID while in transit in New Delhi over the weekend. The aliyah ministry and the Jewish Agency decided to leave them and their families in New Delhi until they were fully recovered, but meanwhile to allow the remaining 160 members of the group to come to Israel on the scheduled fight.
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Initially, the Health Ministry protested and said it would not allow any members of the group into the country. “Given the high infection rates and the real fear of bringing a dangerous variant into Israel, the Health Ministry has ordered the [entire] group delayed in their country until they have completed a full quarantine and all those sick have recovered,” a spokeswoman said in response to questions from Haaretz on Sunday evening.
But several hours later, after coming under pressure from the aliyah ministry and the Agency, the Health Ministry relented and decided to allow the group of 160 immigrants in.
The Health Ministry would not explain its about-face. When asked for comment on Wednesday, it issued the following statement: “At the request of the aliyah ministry and the Jewish Agency, a group of Bnei Menashe arrived. Sixteen of them have tested positive. They are being quarantined in a coronavirus hotel.”
The aliyah ministry insisted that it was not possible to delay their arrival in Israel. “Because of the coronavirus situation in India, their economic situation has deteriorated, and therefore the minister wanted to bring them immediately, even at a time like this,” a statement from Tamano-Shata’s office said.
The statement noted that those who tested positive in Israel were negative before boarding their flight on Monday.