At the start of the coronavirus crisis in March, Israel barred all foreigners from entering the country. Beyond the broader economic and political ramifications of closing the country’s doors, this decision hit one group of Israelis especially hard: those in relationships with nonnationals.
Yaara Mizrachi, 32, met her Dutch partner while serving as the international secretary of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. They have been together for seven years, going back and forth between Israel and Germany. A year ago, they became mothers when her partner gave birth to their son.
“We were together in Berlin during the pregnancy and birth,” Mizrachi says. “Afterward, we were in Israel, but when the coronavirus began spreading, my partner decided to go visit her parents. She flew to Berlin and from there took a train to the Netherlands on the last day before they closed the border.”
Now Mizrachi is in a bind. Israelis still aren’t allowed to enter the European Union’s 27 member states, but her partner isn’t allowed to enter Israel either.
“I haven’t seen my son since March, and my partner has effectively become a single mother,” she tells Haaretz. “I see her difficulties but have no way of helping her, and this a nightmare.
“It’s very sad to see my child in videos and pictures, to see how he’s starting to crawl and grow teeth without my being there. There’s a feeling of lack of control over my life. True, we have experience with a long-distance relationship, but this is really intolerable.”
Though Mizrachi’s story is sad, some might say it’s an unavoidable side-effect of a relationship that was never formalized, since they aren’t married. But this argument is refuted by the story of Hila Nahmani, 43, an Israeli who lives in Antwerp with her husband Reuben and their two children, 2-year-old Liv and 3-month-old Adam.
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Hila still has a design business in Israel. She makes payments to Israel’s National Insurance Institute and her marriage is registered in Israel.
“I gave birth to my son the day Belgium went into lockdown,” she relates. “A few weeks later, we decided to fly to Israel to visit my elderly parents. After I saw hundreds of [Facebook] posts about foreigners not being allowed to enter Israel, I sent an email to the embassy.
She received an unequivocal response: “Because your center of life hasn’t been in Israel for the last year, you cannot currently submit a request for permission for a visit by your husband, who isn’t an Israeli citizen,” it stated.
Moreover, since her son was born at a time when the embassy was operating on a limited basis due to the pandemic, she couldn’t register him as an Israeli citizen. This meant he too was barred from entering Israel. In other words, had Nahmani decided to visit Israel, she would have had to leave her husband and 3-month-old son behind.
‘Violation of basic rights’
Today, Nahmani is fluent in the rules. Married couples registered at the Population Registry and children entitled to Israeli citizenship can in principle be recognized as exceptions to the no-foreigners rule. Nevertheless, she isn’t confident any new request would be granted.
“There’s an important issue of principle here beyond my ability to bring my family – including my young son who has never met his grandfather – on a visit to Israel,” Nahmani says.
“This is a gross violation of my basic rights. I’m an Israeli citizen, but they aren’t letting me bring my family to Israel at a time when yeshiva students in New York and medical tourists are being allowed to enter Israel,” she adds. “This is discrimination and I feel like a second-class citizen because I didn’t marry a Jew, the way the Chief Rabbinate decided people should marry.”
While there are no explicit rules in the travel ban that discriminate against non-Jews, a series of technical, bureaucratic regulations have created de facto discrimination. One exception, for instance, covers yeshiva students.
“Because of the importance of studying Torah and resuming regular study, I decided, in coordination with the foreign and health ministries, to allow avrechim [married yeshiva students] at the holy veteran yeshivas and their families to resume studying at these institutions of learning, if they want to return to Israel and have a valid residency visa,” Interior Minister Arye Dery wrote to yeshiva heads in mid-May. The letter was subsequently published in the ultra-Orthodox press.
“To ease this process, I decided that applications will be made by the yeshiva heads directly to the Population and Immigration Authority rather than through the consulates,” the letter added.
Initially, all foreign yeshiva students were allowed to enter. Two weeks later, permission was canceled for single students, but married yeshiva students and their families can still come.
Another exception concerns the entry permits for those participating in weddings, specifically first-degree relatives as well as the grandparents of the couple. According to a binding letter from lawmaker Rabbi Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism), one of the documents that must be submitted to gain entry is proof that the marriage registration process began in Israel. In other words, this is only for weddings held under the Orthodox religious establishment.
The Israeli list of priorities states that a religious wedding allows entry into Israel, but partners who are in a serious and committed relationship are unable to meet under any condition if one is a foreigner. Also, Haaretz has obtained documents concerning a number of cases in which the Israeli authorities have asked for “rabbinical wedding certificates” in order to decide on the entry requests of foreigners.
Some 20 cases of requests for the entry of nonnationals from 15 different countries were examined for this story. Almost all were denied.
For example, Shahar Koren, 25, lives in Zichron Yaakov with her Danish partner Mads, who holds a visa allowing him to live and work in Israel. Mads, who went for a visit to Denmark, wants to return to Israel but the Interior Ministry told him he is not allowed to return to his home, work or partner.
Another Israeli, Ella Wigelman, 33, is currently living alone in Israel after she had no choice but to leave her husband, Matthias, in their home in Mannheim, Germany. Her father is hospitalized in serious condition, and after the Interior Ministry twice turned down a request to allow her husband into Israel, she was forced to fly alone.
“We did the required process of registering our marriage with the Israeli Consulate in Munich,” she says. “We filled out all the forms, paid for the apostille and met all the conditions. But the process is long and the new status is still not updated in Berlin.”
Now they’re awaiting an answer to their third request. In the meantime, Wigelman has been forced to stay in Israel for a long time – even though they are legally married and do not represent a health risk to anyone – and is finding it difficult without the support of her husband.
Michal Erlich, 35, and her Indian husband, who is the head of the Israel Studies department at Jindal University in Delhi, have an Israeli-recognized “Domestic Union Card” issued by the New Family organization, which advocates for family rights in Israel.
Since 2015, they have lived alternatively in India and Israel, and are currently residing in India with their daughter, who has Israeli citizenship. They submitted three entry requests between the end of April and the beginning of June, and all were denied – in spite of the documents testifying to joint parenthood, marriage and special insurance, which was obtained after great effort and includes a clause concerning COVID-19.
Last week, Population and Immigration Authority Director Shlomo Mor-Yosef was quizzed on Israeli radio about the story of a woman who was forced to give birth alone in Israel when her partner, the father of the child – whose entry into Israel was not approved – was forced to watch the birth on WhatsApp from Los Angeles. Mor-Yosef explained that the father was not allowed to enter because the couple had no documentation proving they were married and expecting a child together, which by association means that those who have the proper documentation should be able to enter.
Erlich heard the interview, after which she approached the embassy again. “They helped us a great deal. They turned to the Interior Ministry again, and the fourth time, we received the sought-after entry permit – even though nothing had changed since the previous time,” she recounts.
The last of the “rescue flights” to Israel has long since gone, so Michal and her husband are now searching for another flight to reach Israel. “I thought about whether to tell my story,” she admits. “The Interior Ministry’s laws are not clear; it’s hard to know what they will decide about our fate, and we have a general feeling of fear. Are they able to cancel the permit? Will they single us out? It feels as if they’re doing us a favor by letting us in, even though it’s my daughter’s right to be with her father, and my full right to be with my partner alongside my family in Israel.
Nahmani, who is married to a Belgian citizen with all the necessary documentation, is convinced that discrimination, not lack of proof, lies at the heart of the policy. “My grandfather fought in the Irgun, his sister was in the Haganah [both are pre-state underground militias], our family is connected to Judaism, we did a bris for the child, my husband has been in Israel dozens of times and I always defended Israel,” she says.
“The only reason they aren’t allowing my husband to enter Israel is that he’s not Jewish,” she adds. “If I need to leave Europe, what am I supposed to do? Leave my partner, my love, my soulmate behind? I don’t want to come in order to show him Lake Kinneret. We aren’t tourists. My father is elderly, my brother is about to get married, it’s my family. When I came to Belgium, I got everything. In Israel, whoever isn’t Jewish doesn’t get anything.”
In addition to the rejection of requests for family reunification, there are cases in which it seems the Israeli authorities are apathetic to the physical suffering of Israeli patients who want to undergo medical treatments in Israel but are unwilling to be separated from their partners in order to do so. Eden Fainberg, 29, met her partner, Milo, during a visit to Australia three years ago. After living together for about a year in Australia, the couple moved to Berlin, but for medical reasons decided to leave Germany and spend some time in Israel.
“I am ill with endometriosis,” says Fainberg, an illustrator. “I decided to undergo treatment for the disease in Israel because it is a long and complicated treatment, it includes physical pain and a long rehabilitation process, and I want to be close to my family and, of course, my partner.”
The plan was to come to Israel at the end of February or beginning of March. After leaving Germany, the couple stopped in Spain for a few days prior to heading to Israel. At this stage, everything began to go wrong. Upon arrival at the Spanish airport, the couple discovered Israel had closed its gates to people arriving from Spain. They then decided to cross the border to Portugal, which was still relatively unaffected by the coronavirus. Israel was still accepting passengers traveling from Lisbon at that point, so it seemed the right thing to do.
“Even though I could enter Israel alone, I’m not willing to be separated from my partner,” Fainberg relates. “I need him alongside me, I’m in heavy pain all the time. I went through a psychological crisis, I had depression and anxiety, and the treatment I’m supposed to have could also very well end in a hysterectomy.”
Fainberg says that at the time she was constantly in touch with Israeli embassies in Europe and the authorities in Israel through relatives and friends. “On March 11, I spoke with the Israeli Embassy in Portugal,” she recounts. “I explained my story; they recommended that I buy a ticket and fill out the self-isolation form. I got the impression that it was impossible to rely on that when we reached Israel, but that Milo would be allowed to enter. It was clear the embassy was not familiar about the details.”
“On March 14, everything was already closed [in Israel] and my friend who works in the Population and Immigration Authority told me there was no chance Milo could enter Israel,” she says. “I called the embassy in Lisbon again to clarify the possibility of submitting an exceptional request, but they told me the chances that it would receive a positive answer were very low.”
Now, the couple has to leave Portugal as their three-month visas have expired. They must return to Germany, although their work visas there will run out soon.
“The hardest thing is that there’s no horizon, no expected date when the skies will reopen,” Fainberg says. “I’ve obtained insurance, we can do all the required tests and we’re willing to go into quarantine. All I want is to return home and look after my body – but I need my partner beside me.”
Moran Liani also needs medical attention in Israel. She’s 35 and has spent the past two years living in London with her Italian husband, Mateo, while working as an analyst at a British bank. “Not only are we married,” she says, “we got married three times: in Israel, in Italy and in England.” The Israeli wedding was conducted by a rabbi, but is not recognized by the Rabbinate because Moran’s husband underwent a Reform conversion.
“When the lockdown began, we thought we’d go to Israel,” Moran relates. “My parents are relatively old and we wanted to be close to them. Moreover, there’s some medical procedure I need to have done in Israel. We turned to the embassy in London in order to ensure that we’d have no problem getting in, and were told that my husband would not be allowed in since we’re not registered as being married in Israel. I told them that I’m ready to update the Population Registry, but the embassy has not yet returned to regular hours of operation, leaving us still here.” Updating the Population Registry by mail takes months and is also quite expensive.
“I want to go to Israel, but I won’t leave my husband here alone,” she says. “It’s beyond any degree of reasonableness. It’s so wrong – what’s the problem with letting foreigners tied to Israelis enter the country if they’re willing to be quarantined and sign whatever they have to? After all, how many such people are there?”
There’s no definitive answer to that question, but Plia Kettner, 35, is in touch with hundreds of Israelis and foreigners affected by the ban. A member of the Kfar Sava City Council, Kettner has founded a Facebook group called “We Want to Meet Each Other,” which now has over 1,000 members.
“At first I thought, like everyone else around the world, that the coronavirus was here for a short period and would soon disappear,” she says. “As soon as I realized that it’s here to stay, I couldn’t accept the fact that Israel was tearing people apart from their loved ones. I set up the group in order to launch a campaign that would exert public pressure to change this decision.”
Kettner has been personally affected by the ban. Her partner, Erik, is in Sweden and the two haven’t met for months. “It was clear to me that they wouldn’t let me and people like me see family members. This especially includes partners if they don’t have a ring on their finger or are not formally registered as such. Registration doesn’t attest to the depth of the connection between people.”
She knows that many other countries aren’t letting nonnationals in, but claims that in contrast to other states, Israel is not offering any hope. “It’s true that other countries have closed their borders, but while the European Union decided that its external borders would slowly reopen to foreigners in July – but only to countries that reciprocate the gesture, which is fair – Israel is not giving any likely date for reopening its borders. This leaves many couples and families in the dark, without any idea of when they’ll see each other again.”
The coronavirus, Kettner concludes, “isn’t going anywhere; it will be with us for a long time. And precisely for that reason, Israel must find a way of keeping these couples and families united. One has to acknowledge that there are different types of families and couples, and be considerate of mixed couples with the understanding that people today don’t always formally register as couples in a world that’s a global village.
“This could mean lifting the prohibition on the entry of foreigners or allowing proof of couplehood by other means – such as correspondence or photos,” she continues. “There’s no shortage of ways in which this can be done. The ban can definitely be lifted while asking people to prove they’re in isolation for two weeks. Anyone coming to meet their partner will have a place in which to be quarantined. These days, the state must find creative solutions in order not to violate the basic human rights of its citizens.”
The Knesset’s coronavirus committee will discuss the issue on Monday. According to MK Merav Michaeli (Labor), the Interior Ministry and Rabbinate “control the most personal affairs of Israelis and deny families the most basic right to reunite.” She tells Haaretz that the “absurd” situation “discriminates against these families and prevents them from entering the country, while many avrechim who are not Israeli citizens are allowed to enter.”
Michaeli adds that she has received many requests from Israelis who live abroad and feel abandoned by the state. “This policy must be changed,” she says.
Monday’s committee meeting was initiated by MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), who says the conditions regulating the entry of non-Israeli relatives or partners of Israeli citizens are unrealistic. “We must allow hundreds of families to reunite with their loved ones,” she says.
Asked for comment to this story, the Interior Ministry responded: “Since the global coronavirus outbreak began, most countries, if not all, have closed their gates to foreigners, and so did Israel. This was done to prevent or reduce the entry of the virus into Israel. This was publicized in every possible medium and in every language.
“Despite this, over the last month, leniencies have gradually been introduced. We decided to approve the entry, under certain conditions, of foreign spouses, artists, athletes, experts, students, avrechim and others.
“Needless to say, any Israeli citizen is nevertheless entitled to enter at any given moment.”
Despite Haaretz’s question, the ministry declined to say how many requests for foreigners to enter Israel were approved or rejected in each of these categories (spouses, experts, athletes, avrechim, medical tourists, etc.).