'We Came to Comfort a Bereaved Family in Israel – and Were Treated Like Criminals'

Five travelers from South Africa, who were already en route when Israel decided to close its borders due to the Omicron COVID variant, describe a disturbing ordeal at Ben-Gurion Airport after landing

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The group from South Africa. 'Unacceptable behavior in a Jewish state' Credit: Courtesy of Ilana Smith

Ilana Smith flew to Israel last weekend with the aim of comforting her friend, Devorah Kay, after her son Eli’s death. “Our families have been close friends for years,” she said.

She purposely delayed her trip until the end of the shivah (Jewish mourning period), following the death of Eli, who was killed by a Palestinian gunman in Jerusalem's Old City last week.

“I wanted to spend time with them afterward, because that can be a very hard time,” Smith said. “I did everything right: I filled out the forms, I got my entry permission and my Green Pass. And then Israel changed the rules when we were in the sky.”

Upon landing, she said, “We were treated like criminals, even though we had done nothing wrong.”

When the group was initially pulled aside after getting off the plane last Friday, they thought they would be taken for questioning and hoped, at minimum, for an explanation as to why they were being detained.

They were “traumatized, scared and intimidated” by what Smith said was “inhumane” and “unacceptable behavior in a Jewish state.” 

“They absolutely refused to give us any information. They just told us to stay in a corner. We asked what was happening to us. They told us to be quiet and stop asking questions. Then they marched us straight to Departures – straight to the plane and said we would be arrested if we didn’t go. 

Travelers tested for the coronavirus at Ben-Gurion Airport. Emergency measures were put in place to limit the spread of the new omicron COVID variant.Credit: Emil Salman

“Nothing helped. I told them I was coming for a shivah call, that I was a frum Jew, that I would be flying to Dubai on Shabbat and had no kosher food to eat. They weren’t interested. They didn’t give us the time of day. We asked what we should do when we get to Dubai. They said: ‘Figure it out yourself, make your own plans.’”

Smith was among five South Africans who say they were mistreated by security personnel at Ben-Gurion Airport and made to break the Jewish Sabbath after being denied entry to Israel on Friday, due to emergency measures put in place to limit the spread of the new omicron COVID variant.

Another traveler, Byron Blumenthau, is a friend of Eli Kay’s brother, Kasriel. Like Smith, Blumenthau was traveling to Israel for the shivah. He said that while he believed the government's decision not to allow South Africans into Israel “was fundamentally correct,” there was no excuse for the “insensitive” behavior of Israeli officials. 

“I was shouted at to get on the plane and threatened with police intervention while putting on tefillin,” he said. “We were not given water, and forced to travel on Shabbos.”

Blumenthau added: "I was traveling with a specific purpose: to visit the Kay family to spend time with them after last week’s devastating ordeal. The way the officials acted was unacceptable.” 

Melissa Genende, 59, said in a phone interview from her home in South Africa that she and the other travelers “were not given any choice in the matter and [were] forcibly put on the plane,” where she was left exhausted after four days of travel. 

"As soon as we got off the plane, our passports were taken away, and we were told we had to return to Dubai, where we had transferred flights. We tried to explain to the security that some members of the group observed Shabbat and couldn’t fly. The guard said ‘We don’t care about your Shabbat laws. These are the country’s laws and there is nothing to discuss.’ Then he said if we didn’t get on the plane we would be arrested.”

She added that they were "treated like criminals from the moment we arrived in Israel. It was embarrassing and shameful."

Genende had been on her way to Israel to visit her children and grandchildren, who had recently immigrated. She felt she could not risk being denied entry for the long-term, leaving her unable to visit them. 

She explained that she had come to help her son take care of his 18-month-old toddler. Her daughter-in-law’s father had died of COVID last year, immediately after the young couple immigrated to Israel, and she had missed the funeral. Genende had planned to care for the child so that her daughter-in-law could fly to South Africa for the unveiling of his gravestone a year after his death. 

“I just want to be with my children. We have had the most terrible two years. COVID has messed up our lives and ripped families apart,” she said. 

The move by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to ban entry to non-citizens traveling from South Africa was enacted Thursday, while the group was already en route to Dubai on Emirates Airlines.

They were not told of the decision when they boarded their connecting flight from Dubai to Tel Aviv. Had they known they would not be allowed to enter Israel, Genende said, none of them would have gotten on the plane. 

Genende said members in the group understood the concerns about the omicron variant, but were stunned by how they were treated when they arrived – separated from Israeli passport holders and not allowed to sit down or discuss their situation with an Israeli official.

“We were hungry and dehydrated and asked for water, but none was given. I asked them ‘Can you please not speak to us like we are animals? Can you let us catch our breath?’“ 

The group was put on a return flight to Dubai, which landed late Friday afternoon, after Shabbat had begun. The airline, still in possession of their passports, told them they had been booked on a flight back to South Africa on an early morning flight Saturday morning – the second flight they would take over the Jewish Sabbath. They were forced to spend the night in the airport.

Genende added that all Smith and Blumenthau wanted was to attend Eli Kay's shivah. 

“All they wanted was to go there and comfort them and be with them. I’m so sad for all of us, and just so deeply hurt about the way Israelis treated us,” she said.

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