Christians Fume as Jewish Tour Groups Exempt From Israel's Omicron Entry Ban

Interior Minister Shaked moved to exempt 'Jewish tourism' from the COVID ban on foreign nationals entering the country, but Christians note that Christmas is fast approaching: 'The only difference is that they are Jews'

Arrivals in Ben-Gurion International Airport, on Monday.
Arrivals in Ben-Gurion International Airport, on Monday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

An inter-ministerial team approved the entry of tourist groups that fall into the category of “Jewish tourism” early this week, exempting them from entry restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Upon the discovery of omicron, the government has restored the ban on foreign citizens entering Israel, but Birthright delegations and similar organizations were exempted from the ban and are being allowed into Israel. Other groups, including Christians wishing to visit Israel for Christmas, have had their requests to enter denied.

On Sunday, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked moved to exempt “Jewish tourism” from the decision, claiming that it was an endeavor of national importance. The team that approved it included representatives from the health, foreign, and interior ministries. Shaked declined to comment.

Christian organizations in Israel protested the selective policy, noting that Christmas is approaching. Church leaders recounted that they had approached officials in the health and interior ministries, asking to approve the entry of a few dozen priests and nuns, and were refused.

“[COVID] Numbers have plummeted dramatically, it should have been no problem to approve entry in capsules and subject to Green Pass regulations,” said a senior cleric, referring to Israel's vaccine passport program. “This step would have prevented discrimination and given some air to tourism centers, which are in a deep crisis at the height of pilgrimage season.”

A senior church figure said “we have no intention of haggling. There is an issue of principle here – why are Birthright visitors, who are foreign citizens, getting such an exemption, while pilgrims are not? The only difference is that they are Jews.”

Since the tightening of entry restrictions late last month, the stream of tourists has ground to a halt. The new restrictions came just weeks after Israel began allowing tourists to enter the country in November.

Except for a very brief period in November, foreigners have been barred from entering Israel since the outbreak of the global pandemic. Off and on, the Interior Ministry has made exceptions for various groups, like Birthright participants, exchange students, yeshiva students, foreign workers with special areas of expertise, and immediate family members of Israelis. Periodically, Israel has also allowed organized groups of tourists into the country.

In April, with the start of the tourist reentry pilot, a separate outline was set for Birthright and similar organizations, allowing them to bring some 1,000 people to Israel – more than the scope of the entire pilot. In total, 4,666 Birthright participants arrived this year in total, with the last group arriving in November.

The arriving members of Jewish tour groups were required to quarantine for three days subject to a negative coronavirus test, just like Israeli citizens. The special permission has been granted for tourists from Central and South America; visitors from “red” countries are still banned.

Several hundred Birthright participants from North America are expected to arrive in Israel starting next week, which coincides with the beginning of the winter semester break at American and Canadian colleges. Like returning Israelis, they are required to quarantine for three days upon arrival.

Judy Maltz contributed to this report.

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