Opinion |

Should Coronavirus Mean Israel Shuts the Door on Jews, Dead or Alive?

Right now, Israel looks a lot safer than in New York, London or Paris. Does Israel have a moral duty to serve as a haven for Jews against the COVID-19 plague, and to welcome their bodies for burial here?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israelis wear protective face masks against coronavirus during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel. April 16, 2020
Israel's Declaration of Independence states that it 'would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew.' During a coronavirus crisis, too?Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

It sounds like a brainteaser. If 140 people (at the time of writing) have died of COVID-19 in Israel, how can it be that at least 250 people who have died from coronavirus have been buried in Israel over the last month or so? What accounts for the inflation in burial numbers?

The answer: Nearly half the burials of coronavirus victims in Israel are not of Israelis at all. According to an interview that Channel 11’s Yair Ettinger conducted this week with the CEO of Tel Aviv’s Hevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society), Avraham Manella, who is also the chairman of Israel’s burial societies forum, "One hundred, maybe more, deceased, have arrived. And the rate (of arrival) is increasing." 

These are bodies of ultra-Orthodox Jews, mainly from the United States, but from Europe as well, who bought burial plots in the promised land during their lifetimes, or whose families have done so after their deaths. They were flown to Ben-Gurion Airport in the hold of the tiny handful of scheduled passenger flights still arriving – and, increasingly, in privately-chartered jets.

According to one source in the aviation industry, there have actually been days recently in which more dead people arrived at Ben-Gurion than live breathing passengers. He may have been exaggerating – but only slightly. 

Health Ministry officials are against these long-haul funeral processions, claiming there is a risk of infection from the bodies to the personnel handling them, but they have been over-ruled by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. Manella, who is close to Litzman and, like him, an influential Gerrer hassid, believes that, "This is the fulfillment of the vision of a national home for all Jews from the entire world."

Hevra Kadisha workers wear protective gear as they carry the body of a victim of coronavirus disease to burial in Jerusalem. April 2, 2020Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

That somewhat macabre vision aside, it’s worth mentioning that the burial of foreign citizens in Israel is a also a major revenue stream for Israel’s burial societies. 

But the fact that the undertakers are making a killing right now isn’t the main issue here. The real question is, does the state founded with the express purpose of serving as a haven for the Jewish people have a special duty towards the Jews of the world during a global pandemic? And just so we’re clear, I’m talking here about live diaspora Jews, not lucrative Jewish corpses. 

"It never happened before that when the Jews in power in the [holy] land tell Jews who don’t have this power, 'You can’t come because we must protect ourselves,’" complained Bernard Abouaf, president of Paris Jewish radio station Radio Shalom, in an interview with Shachar Peled for Haaretz earlier this week.

Monsieur Abouaf is enraged that while Israel has been organizing the repatriation of its citizens from across the world, it is currently preventing the entry of non-Israelis, including French Jews, for fear of their spreading the virus. And he has a point.

Many countries around the world are now closing their gates to citizens of other nations. Should Israel act differently, bearing in mind its Declaration of Independence states that it "would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew" and "be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles"?

A limited group of Jewish worshippers pray at the Western Wall on the holiday of Passover, amid the coronavirus outbreak. Jerusalem's Old City, April 12, 2020Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

The Declaration of Independence makes it clear that Israel will be open to Jewish immigration for two reasons – the Jews’ everlasting connection to their ancient homeland, and due to the unique persecution of Jews across the generations in nearly every country in which they sought shelter. 

But does that include also serving as a haven from the plague? 

"Every Jew is eligible to make aliyah to Israel," the first clause of the Law of Return, passed in 1950, makes quite clear. It is an inalienable right (assuming you can prove you are Jewish or have a Jewish grandparent) and citizenship is automatic, upon arrival.

But then come the caveats in sub-clause 2b. The interior minister can deny an "oleh [immigrant] visa" if s/he believes the applicant is "(1) acting against the Jewish people; or (2) could endanger the public’s health or security of the state; or (3) or has a criminal past that could endanger the public."

What constitutes public health? Over the years, Jews with all types of illnesses and ailments have been allowed to emigrate. At one point there was a debate over AIDS, but HIV carriers were ultimately allowed in. On the other hand, those with tuberculosis are barred from landing until they are cured. 

Israel's Maccabi HMO installs a COVID-19 testing booth for medical workers to collect swab samples from individuals in Tel Aviv. April 16, 2020Credit: AFP

Even now, there isn’t an official decision that COVID-19 is a bar to making aliyah; instead, there is a technical, logistical issue. You can’t arrive in Israel if your country’s borders are closed, or if there are no flights. But if you already have a visa, and somehow you can book a ticket on a plane flying to Israel, and are prepared to spend your first two weeks in your new homeland in self-quarantine, then you can come.

It is a difficult period for those who were planning to emigrate. Especially those who were scheduled to come over the summer months, and were already in the process of winding up their affairs, leaving jobs and selling homes. But then the pandemic has upended everyone’s best-laid plans. We all have had to reschedule.

But what if Diaspora Jews suddenly decide they want to come to Israel, not as new citizens, but as Jewish tourists - and because it currently looks a lot safer here than in New York, London and Paris?

Because the infection here so far has been less widespread (if you keep out of Bnei Brak and certain neighborhoods of Jerusalem that is), the supermarkets are all full of food (with the exception of eggs), you can get a great deal for an Airbnb and the public health system has yet to be overwhelmed. 

Does Israel have a right to prevent them from coming? Should the government have the powers to prevent them, even in time of plague? Should Israeli citizens of longer standing have any precedence over them if life-saving ventilators become scarce? Why do they have to go through the bureaucracy of getting an aliyah visa just to visit?

And how is such a Jewish healthcare tourist different from the thousands of elderly new immigrants arriving annually from Russia and Ukraine because spending their last years of life in Israel as old-age pensioners is infinitely better than doing so back home? Have a look at the numbers, many if not most new olim today are not starry-eyed Zionists, but welfare immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

An Israeli police officer and Israeli soldiers wear face masks and gloves on a Tel Aviv roadblock during the Passover coronavirus lockdown. April 9, 2020Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

The Law of Return may be Israel’s raison d’etre, but the Declaration of Independence’s open-ended promises didn’t actually specify that eligibility for citizenship be immediate, and entail full rights, the vote and social benefits on arrival.

But no one ever questioned the blanket nature of the Law of Return because there was no need to. In the early years of Israel’s independence, most of those arriving were either Holocaust survivors and refugees from Europe or Jews who had been chased from their homes in Arab countries. 

Even when the motivating reason for aliyah wasn’t anti-Semitic persecution, such as the famine facing Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s, no-one questioned the airlift. Or when a few years later, a million immigrants arrived from the disintegrating Soviet Union, they were seen as a boon to Israel’s population, despite the financial strain they put on a country which then numbered less than five million.

But what if Jews choose, instead of sheltering in place back home, to come here when Israel is facing coronavirus, to use our understaffed public health system as well? Or just to be with their Israeli family members, like many French Jews seem to want?

There are no simple answers to these questions, not only because the government is currently incapable of formulating an exit strategy for its existing citizens, let alone deciding an entry policy for potential citizens. But the coronavirus is a plague on all of our houses.

If Israel does indeed close its doors to Jews in distress, that should merit at least a momentary pause before the upcoming, and necessarily muted, celebrations of Israel’s 72nd birthday.

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