Every July and August, flight after flight brings Israelis who moved abroad home for a visit. This summer there’s a difference, though. Everybody coming to Israel this summer has to quarantine themselves for two weeks. If you’re coming for just two or three weeks to begin with, the prospect of spending your first 14 days in isolation is onerous.
Even so, arrivals who don’t want to stay at an “isolation hotel” even at the state’s expense must state that they can be confined in complete isolation at a home, either living alone or in a separate unit from the other occupants. They must also pledge not to use public transportation to reach their quarantine site, with the exception of a taxi in which they are the sole passenger. If they break the rules, the police or district physician may obligate them to stay in a state-run quarantine hotel and they may be fined up to 5,000 shekels.
The first wave of the coronavirus outbreak hit just before Passover, when thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews usually fly to Israel to celebrate the Seder night in Jerusalem. The second wave is hitting in the Hebrew month of Elul, when thousands of yeshiva students normally fly to Israel for the High Holidays. Many come to celebrate Rosh Hashana with their rabbis.
These thousands of Jews, who mostly come from the United States, have a problem. Most are not Israeli citizens and the Israel Civil Aviation Authority has directed the airlines that non-residents will be barred from entering the country until September. There are certain exceptions to this ban: foreigners who work in Israel, are married to Israelis or who study here can apply for a special entry permit (they are required to present proof of health insurance, including coverage for COVID-19).
Many of the Jews who wish to come to Israel study in ultra-Orthodox institutions here, hence they are eligible to apply for entry. But they still have nowhere special to stay in Israel to carry out quarantine as required and could find themselves at “quarantine hotels” with non-believers.
All of this has led to massive pressure lately from the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties, urging the government to approve special conditions for the yeshiva students who are expected to visit Israel. Together with university students, high school students, pre-army program students and others who are set to return to Israel, the number totals about 17,000 – most of whom are ultra-Orthodox.
This pressure led to special permission from Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein for students arriving from abroad. Per the Health Ministry: “Following a joint discussion between the interior minister and health minister, the decision was made to allow the return to Israel of students in various educational frameworks. The permit pertains to foreign students in academic institutions, yeshiva students, Masa students, ulpana students, seminary students, Na’aleh students, high school students and mechina students. Quarantine will be allowed in capsules of up to six people. The students will be administered coronavirus test during the period of isolation.” So not only are they able to visit Israel while other nonresidents are not; nobody else is allowed to be quarantined in capsules of up to six.
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This special permission raises a number of questions. Can any Israelis living abroad who want to come to Israel also quarantine in capsules of up to six people? The answer would be relevant to many Israelis now debating about visiting their family here. What percentage of the mass of yeshiva students who come to Israel will be put up at isolation hotels at state expense – and is the system prepared to accommodate these large numbers?
Finally, will these people really remain in Israel for the entire school year, or do a significant number only intend to come for the holidays? And if so, won’t having to factor in the entire isolation period make traveling here illogical?
Equalizing the requirements, which were handed down in order to combat the pandemic’s spread, is vital from every perspective. If special quarantine conditions are to be granted to yeshiva students coming to Israel, the same conditions should apply to everyone.
By the same token, Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman’s demand last week during a meeting of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee to put the conditions for opening synagogues on a par with those for operating hotel dining rooms – i.e., at up to 35-percent capacity – is completely logical. There is no reason that the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, which can hold hundreds of worshipers, should be limited to the same number as a small makeshift synagogue. Limiting the number of diners or worshipers should be done relative to the size of the space in which they gather. Coronavirus czar Professor Ronni Gamzu needs to realize that as long as the restrictions don’t make sense, more and more Israelis will fail to heed them.
The ultra-Orthodox parties are also closely following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hints about heading for new elections and are quite horrified at the prospect. Deputy Transportation Minister Uri Maklev stated this week in an interview with Yated Ne’eman, “If Netanyahu submits a proposal to disband the Knesset, we’ll oppose it. There is no reason to put the country through another needless round of elections.” He added: “We know the truth about who’s to blame. Netanyahu did all he could to drive a wedge between us and (coalition partner) Kahol Lavan. It’s too bad for him, too, because it could work against him like a boomerang. When someone (Netanyahu) has personal connections it’s hard for him to see other moves. Right now he doesn’t have many people around him who can tell him the truth.”