‘You Can Jump the Line’: How Haredi MKs Decide Who Enters Israel During COVID

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An empty Ben-Gurion Airport during the January coronavirus lockdown.
An empty Ben-Gurion Airport during the January coronavirus lockdown.Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

The government decision to reduce the number of travelers permitted to enter Israel through the airport to 2,000 per day has caused chaos for thousands of people who need to enter or leave the country for medical treatment, family visits or work. The Exceptions Committee has been swamped with requests – creating a situation ripe for lobbying by whoever can help, which turns out mainly to be the Haredi MKs. 

Criticism of the committee’s conduct has been growing. Sources in the Haredi parties say, however, that the committee is functioning much better than it did when it started out a month ago. “We’d get hundreds of cases a day, because the committee just wasn’t functioning,” says one. “Anyone who wanted to go in or out needed protexia (special connections), someone to push the application, because the committee wasn’t getting back to people.”

This source says that as soon as the committee began operating under the auspices of the Transportation Ministry, the process became more orderly. Applications are submitted to the Population Authority and assessed by a team of dozens of workers from several relevant government ministries. If the criteria are clearly met or unmet, an answer is given immediately. When questions arise, the applications are forwarded to a committee that handles thousands of cases. “If these are people who left the country in accordance with procedures before January 25, there is no problem,” the source says. But when there is a case that “falls between the cracks,” that’s when the Haredi representatives enter the picture. 

One source in the Haredi factions says the government set a clear list of criteria regarding who is eligible to enter Israel, and in these cases the decisions is practically automatic. But there is one gray area – the section on “humanitarian need.” “This is where the committee can exercise its judgment,” he says. Last week, the committee’s legal advisor confirmed that decisions on entry into Israel for humanitarian reasons are made in an arbitrary manner, without clear criteria.

Haredi ministers and MKs have been helping Israelis who run into a problem with the committee, with most of the actual work being done by their aides. “We’ve handled hundreds of requests, from Haredi and secular, Arab and Druze,” says an aide to a Haredi MK. “We’ve helped everyone. Hundreds of people with no connection to the Haredi parties have received help.” 

Says one aide who spoke with Haaretz, “As soon as I get a request, I contact someone from the ministries that are connected with the committee – the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry, or one of the committee members themselves.” 

Another aide explains that usually the Haredi representative will contact committee chairman Shiloh Adler or Amnon Shmueli from the Population Authority, who is a committee member. “They personally examine the file and can say whether this or that form is missing,” he says. “Many times, the request still isn’t approved. Other times, it is approved, once all the necessary forms are submitted.” The sources stresses that an applicant cannot obtain approval without meeting the criteria and submitting all the required forms. “There’s no such thing that Transportation Minister Regev, or her deputy Maklev or Interior Minister Deri call someone on the committee and say, ‘Do me a favor, it’s important to me.’ What is possible is to accelerate the handling of the file, to shorten the line, but it still has to meet all the criteria.” 

He says that in some cases, the committee rejects requests without explanation, which is only given if the applicant asks for help from the Haredi representatives. The sources also say that some requests for help are coming from MKs from other factions, including rival factions “like Yisrael Beitenu and Meretz.” 

The two aides say that anyone who seeks this assistance receives it, regardless of what sector they come from, but that most of the requests come from Haredim. “I don’t know how many Haredim and how many secular people received approval,” says one. “I do know that in our office we handled hundreds of cases of secular Israelis. But there’s no breakdown of how many from this or that group because it’s not relevant. We handle whatever requests we receive. Naturally, someone who’s more Haredi is more likely to contact us because he knows the people and knows this kind of possibility exists.” He says that this was really the case in the beginning, but after a few days, other people heard about the assistance available through the Haredi MKs’ offices and began relaying many requests, primarily via travel agencies. 

“All the talk about the Haredim getting special dispensations just because they’re Haredim isn’t true,” says another aide. “We received requests from secular people and they were handled in exactly the same way. Most of the frustration built up from the time that the committee wasn’t functioning. What’s going on is absolutely not protexia for Haredim only. If the secular MKs knew how to work and were more available, if their aides knew how to work, the situation would be the same.”

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