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Israel travel ban leaves SA olim high and dry

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Israel

On Monday, Israel implemented a ban on its citizens travelling to South Africa, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, India, Mexico, and Turkey amidst fears of COVID-19 variants. But the ruling has left many South African olim angry and frustrated, with one saying she felt like she was being “held hostage”.

“This affects all of us. We all miss our families desperately,” says Sarah Spiro.

“I was supposed to fly on Saturday night to spend time with my very ill father,” says Robbie Singer. “I asked his physician to give me a motivating letter to present to the special committee but he said he couldn’t do that because he’s very ill, but not dying. He has been very ill for the past six years. He needs surgery in the next few weeks. I’m anxious and frustrated.”

Another South African in Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “My son and daughter were due to fly on 5 May. My father is terminally ill and, by the looks of things, doesn’t have much time left. My kids are extremely close to their grandfather, and it was important for them to see him. In addition, their dad lives in South Africa, and they haven’t seen him in 18 months or more. This was all explained in a letter submitted to the panel that decides on exceptional cases, but they were told theirs doesn’t qualify. I know it’s for the best – truly I do – but it’s devastating.”

Another South African who didn’t want to be named says, “Both of my parents are sick with COVID-19, and my application to travel to South Africa to be with them was denied. They said it didn’t meet urgent humanitarian needs.”

“My son, 18, is finishing his final year of school in Israel. I haven’t seen him since August last year when he returned to Israel after the initial lockdown,” says a South African mother who didn’t want to be named. “We’re missing so many milestones. He will more than likely be moving into a lone soldiers’ apartment while he waits to hear when he will enlist in the army. We were planning for him to visit us in July. We can’t travel there as we’re not vaccinated at this point. I’m devastated to be honest.”

For many South African olim, this is just one of many travel bans that have had an impact on their lives, families, and businesses over the past year. “My husband travels regularly back and forth to South Africa for work. The travel bans have had a serious impact on our financials,” says one woman who wants to remain anonymous. “My mother had a ticket booked to come and visit us and see her four grandchildren in August 2020, but due to corona[virus] it wasn’t possible. These travel bans are keeping us from earning an income and denying us our families.”

“My business is in South Africa, and I can’t travel due to the restrictions,” says Steve Zeff. “We have had to restructure roles within the company in order to continue. It’s frustrating because my business is based on trust and reputation. It’s a legal and technical minefield. But I can’t physically get in front of clients, and Zoom and Google Teams isn’t always ideal.”

“The draconian Israeli travel restriction was received with a great deal of dismay and, in some families, profound distress,” says local expert Professor Barry Schoub, the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines. “Why, with Israel’s world-beating vaccination programme is the country closing down instead of opening up? Why South Africa, where COVID-19 numbers are relatively low?

“To understand these severe measures, one has to appreciate why South Africa could threaten Israel’s hard-won achievement. It’s unfortunate that South Africa is the global epicentre of one of the most serious coronavirus variants of concern – the variant B.1.351 – possibly the most resistant of all the variants to vaccine-induced immunity,” Schoub says. “It’s true that the Pfizer vaccine used throughout Israel is effective against the variant. It’s also true that the travel screening precautions and quarantine regulations would greatly reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of B.1.351 being imported into the country.

“However, B.1.351 currently comprises only a tiny and insignificant percentage of virus strains in Israel. The country’s economy is opening up, and life is returning to normal. Israel’s public health authorities could now ill-afford for these hard-won gains to be imperilled by the circulation of the most problematic of the viral variants imported from travel from South Africa. They have therefore deemed that only under the most extreme of humanitarian circumstances may any exceptions be made.”

Says Liat Amar Arran of the Israel Centre: “It’s not political … it’s an epidemiological decision.” She explains that the skies are still open to Israelis and olim travelling from these countries who will be required to isolate for 10 to 14 days on their return, depending on their COVID-19 test results. The rule applies to those who have been vaccinated and those who haven’t. The decision is being re-assessed on a daily basis. The government has said it will announce new information on 16 May.

“It definitely hasn’t been easy on the South African Jewish community,” she says. “There has been so much pressure on people needing to travel, and a lot of requests for help. We and other communal organisations are fighting to help the community, as we know its members are the ones who suffer the most from this decision. We are talking to COVID-19 headquarters in Israel, building a relationship, and sharing data with them. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. There are many who want to travel for simchas, or people who are desperate to see their families. One can request a visit on humanitarian grounds, but only in extreme situations.”

Deputy Israeli Ambassador to South Africa Hila Rose Fridman echoes these sentiments, saying the embassy has even consulted local experts to engage with Israel’s COVID-19 committee. “But South African experts can’t argue otherwise. They don’t think there is a basis to change Israel’s decision.”

Fridman says Israel takes into account many factors when considering exceptions to the travel ban. She knows people are struggling with the ban, “which is why the embassy has decided to host a webinar answering consular questions this upcoming Sunday, 9 May, at 20:00. More information can be found on the embassy’s website and Facebook page, ‘Israel in South Africa’.”

A glimmer of light in the situation is that aliyah flights are still allowed. “We have a flight of 27 South African olim going on 8 May after Shabbat,” says Amar Arran. “It was meant to go at 21:30, but we requested that it be moved an hour later so that those who are shomrei Shabbos have a little more time. This will be the first and last El Al flight for now. Another 30 olim were supposed to go on 22 May, but El Al cancelled that flight, so we will try to arrange it with another airline. Olim include youth, the elderly, couples, and families.”

Roz Bukris, El Al general manager of southern and eastern Africa, says, “We want our passengers to understand that we do care for them in spite of the challenges we are facing. We wanted to avoid disappointment as we have been trying to get flights here since January, but circumstances beyond our control have forced us to cancel.

“Unfortunately, one doesn’t know what the next day will bring. We hope to resume on 3 June from Tel Aviv and 5 June from Johannesburg. However this all depends on the Israeli government’s decisions regarding the South African variant.”

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Israel

Is the new Israeli government the end of ‘the magician’?

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After 12 consecutive years of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israelis are coming to terms with the fact that the magician, as his fans like to call him, has finally run out of tricks. Or not.

A special parliament session on Sunday ended with a razor-thin majority of 60-59 in favour of a new, hugely diverse, coalition of eight parties. Headed by the leader of the far-right Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, it will result in Netanyahu, as head of the right-wing Likud party that won the most votes in the last election, heading off to lead the opposition bloc.

But before one writes Netanyahu off, it’s worth noting that he’s been here before. Twice he’s returned from the opposition to become prime minister, and he certainly plans to do it a third time. He’s vowed to “rescue Israel” from an incoming government based on “fraud, hate, and power-seeking”.

Netanyahu is a sore loser. He forwent the traditional public handover ceremony on Monday, 14 June, that includes a toast for the incoming prime minister, and reportedly gave Bennett just half an hour of his time before leaving to meet with his new opposition forces. They welcomed him as “prime minister”, and he didn’t feel the need to correct them, claiming that he could feel the “weak points” of the “dangerous left-wing government” at “the tips of my fingers”.

So, who is Naftali Bennett, the man who managed to unseat Israel’s longest serving prime minister? Ironically, the 49-year-old former tech-start-up-millionaire-turned-politician once served as a senior aide to Netanyahu, although the two often clashed. Bennett went on to form his own political party that represents the religious right and over the years, held three ministerial positions – diaspora affairs, education, and defence. But he failed to perform during the last election in March this year, coming joint fifth with just six out of 120 parliament seats. In the previous election, he didn’t even cross the threshold.

Israelis are asking themselves how someone with such a small mandate (the equivalent of 180 000 seats) is now their prime minister. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, his erstwhile supporters say he “stole” their vote. Many feel betrayed and angry. They complain that they voted for the right, and now Bennett has joined forces with parties on the centre and left. Many believe his desire to become prime minister, or to oust Netanyahu, or both, was so great, he forfeited his political positions. If elections were to be held today, Bennett would fare worse than he did three months ago.

But the new prime minister sees things differently. After Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition back in April, President Reuven Rivlin handed the baton to Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party which won the second largest number of votes in the last election. But Lapid was short of seven seats, exactly the number Bennett, an unlikely ally, could offer him, although later, one of the seven left the party. Bennett was kingmaker. After weeks of negotiations, he and Lapid signed a power-sharing deal in which Bennett will be prime minister until September 2023 and then Lapid for a further two years.

Most Israelis, though, don’t believe the new government will last that long, sounding its death knell as early as a few weeks from now. Bennett is Israel’s first Orthodox prime minister and the former head of the Settlers Council. Lapid is a secular centrist. Bennett wants to annex up to 60% of the West Bank; Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz wants to withdraw to pre-1967 lines. Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman is seeking to maximise conscription in the ultra-Orthodox community and drastically reduce that sector’s government funding; Bennett and maybe even Lapid hold out the hope of at least some of the ultra-Orthodox MKs joining the coalition. And so it goes on.

But Bennett is using the coalition’s weakness as his biggest strength, arguing this “change government” is the broadest and most representative in Israel’s history.

“We hope it’s the beginning of a new Israel,” he said, promising that his government would “work for the sake of all the people” and prioritise reforms in education, health, and cutting red tape. Thorny issues like reaching a deal with the Palestinians he’s left out for now.

But the biggest irony of all is that it’s on Bennett’s watch that for the first time, an Arab party will be sitting in the ruling coalition. In the 73-year history of Israel, there’s an unwritten rule that any government is formed only by Jewish parties. The one exception was when the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin relied on the support of an Arab party in the wake of the Oslo Peace Accords in the 1990s. That agreement, however, didn’t formalise the party’s entry into the ruling coalition.

What has driven Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Arab Islamist Ra’am party, to join the government isn’t the desire for a peace agreement but rather pragmatism. He wants immediate attention paid to the demands of the Israeli Arab minority. Among the promises he has extracted from Bennett are the adoption of a five-year economic-development plan for the Arab community with a budget of 30 billion shekels (about R126 billion) as well as plans to combat crime and violence in the Arab community, improve infrastructure, and advance Arab local authorities.

Palestinian leaders, however, have reacted dismissively to Israel’s new government, saying it makes no difference who heads it, least of all when it’s someone cut from the same cloth as Netanyahu.

Inside Israel, there have been calls for physical violence against Bennett and members of the new government. Even before being elected, the new prime minister’s security was increased amid concerns that he could be harmed. Rising incitement and hate speech on social media led to an extraordinary statement being issued by the head of the Shin Bet internal security service, Nadav Argaman. “This discourse may be interpreted among certain groups or individuals as one that allows violent and illegal activity, and could even lead to harm to individuals,” he warned.

It’s worth remembering that Rabin (like Bennett) was depicted as a traitor by the Israeli right, and eventually that led to his assassination. Some are worried the current political climate has echoes of those times.

Netanyahu has declared that the new government endangers the land of Israel, the state of Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces. “We’ll be back,” he pledged just before getting dethroned. Sounding like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his blockbuster Terminator movie, there’s likely to be a dramatic sequel to follow. Watch this space!

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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“How much blood will be shed?” ask bereaved parents

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Losing a child to violence devastates the parents left behind. It creates an unspeakable emptiness, a void of loss, pain, and anger. Two bereaved Israeli and Palestinian parents have joined forces to forgive, and have become unlikely warriors for peace so that their children won’t have died in vain.

Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin shared their grief and hope in an emotion-filled webinar, “One Day After Peace”, hosted by the SA Jewish Report on Saturday, 12 June.

Damelin was born in Johannesburg, and settled in Israel in 1967. Her youngest son, David, served in the Israeli army during the Second Intifada. The liberal and open-minded educationalist David struggled with serving in the territories.

He was killed by a Palestinian sniper’s bullet in March 2002.

“One Palestinian,” Damelin said, “Not the whole Palestinian nation. I told the army, ‘You may not kill anyone in the name of my child.’”

Losing a child “tears your heart out”, Damelin said. Reluctantly, she was persuaded to attend a weekend for bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families in East Jerusalem. “I thought I had had enough pain. But they understood. Palestinian mothers shared the same pain, our tears were the same colour.”

Damelin became a voice for non-violence, reconciliation, and restorative justice, and shared her story around the world. When the man who killed David was found, “That was the test,” she said. “Did I really mean all this stuff about reconciliation and forgiveness?” He said he had killed 10 people – David and nine others – to “free Palestine”, having as a child seen his uncle die for this cause. He took a path of revenge and was a folk hero. Damelin reached out to him, only to receive a bitter and stinging reply years later.

“When you are a victim of any circumstance, don’t remain one. It will hold you back for the rest of your life. I gave up my just right to revenge,” Damelin said. “Forgiveness is a very personal.” She has found that writing letters to David has given her solace.

Aramin also shared his story. Growing up under what he called “this strange occupation”, he began throwing stones at Israeli soldiers when he was 13. He was arrested at 17, and sentenced to seven years. He learned Hebrew in prison, “So I could know my enemy and kill my enemy. Jail gets you to hate more.”

Then he watched a film in prison about the Holocaust. “The vast majority of us don’t believe it happened, and that the Zionists use this ‘great lie’ to justify the occupation.” He was unexpectedly moved, and went on to do a Master’s in the Holocaust at Bradford University.

When he started a family after the 1993 Oslo Accords, Aramin realised that 100 years of armed struggle hadn’t worked, and just wanted a safe, normal life for his children.

In 2005, he met Israeli officers who had refused to serve in the territories. Having difficult conversations, they kept meeting. Their group grew to 300 in a year, and became Combatants for Peace. “When you work with your enemy, he becomes your partner,” Aramin said.

Then on 16 January 2007, an Israeli border policeman shot and killed Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, outside her school.

“I joined a bereaved parents’ circle, an organisation in my worst dream I wouldn’t want to join. The ticket price is very high. You never fully heal.” Aramin was disappointed at the lack of regret by the man who killed his innocent daughter. “Revenge is a right, but forgiveness is a choice.”

“A child’s life is more important than any holy land. Without loving each other, we need to respect each other, and both peoples have a right to exist. Palestinians will never ever accept the Israeli occupation. We’re not going to leave or disappear. We will remain and the occupation will go. But how many more children will have to die?” asked Aramin.

“This last war was terrifying – a repeat of 2014 with better weapons,” Damelin said. “How are those children growing up filled with hatred in Gaza ever going to handle things? Children in Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod are traumatised and wetting their beds. Palestinian women have no safe room to run to. Israeli mothers have 15 seconds to run – what if they have more than one child?”

“We need brave leaders,” said Aramin. “The Nakba [establishment of Israel in 1948] is over. The Holocaust is over. We are very strong nations, but we must look forward. We need to share this land, in one state, two states, five states, or there will just be two big graves here. I hope to see peace in my lifetime, but how much blood will still be shed?”

Aramin partnered with more than 100 Israeli soldiers to build gardens for children to play in, in Abir’s memory. “One can kill, 100 can build,” he said. “Me and Robi are family now. We are human beings and we need to trust and respect our partners.”

Damelin said, “If we don’t deal with the problems with Palestine, one of these days there won’t be an Israeli state. I love Israel, and I have paid the highest price. But it’s important to live in a moral country, and the occupation is taking its toll.”

Both speakers appear in documentaries about their journeys, One Day after Peace and Within the Eye of the Storm. Aramin’s story was also an inspiration for the novel, Apeirogon, by Colum McCann.

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Why Benjamin Netanyahu treats the Jewish media with contempt

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(JTA) Whether this week marks the last of Benjamin Netanyahu’s record-setting tenure as prime minister or is just a prelude to another never-count-him-out comeback, it seems a fitting moment to try to understand why he has consistently treated diaspora Jewish media with disdain.

It’s something I’ve experienced personally on several occasions, and may well reflect the prime minister’s attitude not just toward the Jewish press but toward American Jewry in general.

It seems ironic, if not baffling, that Netanyahu would be rude to the one group of journalists who are most sympathetic and accommodating. But then he is a man of many contradictions, with remarkable skills and ugly traits, towering oratory, and gutter-level charges, and great success in protecting Israel from outside threats while allowing the weakening of Israeli society from within.

I have interviewed the prime minister one-on-one in his Jerusalem office, attended a number of meetings he’s held with the press, and heard him speak many times in the United States (US) and Israel. Perhaps the most illuminating example of his contradictory behaviour dates back to a visit he made to the US when he first served as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999.

During that visit 25 years ago, Netanyahu’s staff scheduled back-to-back sessions for him with two separate groups of journalists in a small conference room at his Manhattan hotel. The first group consisted of about a dozen major media figures, including the network news anchors of the day and A-list reporters. The second meeting was with the same number of editors of Jewish newspapers from across the country.

As editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, I was invited to the second meeting. But thanks to an influential friend at the local Israeli consulate, I was allowed to attend the first meeting as well, though I was asked to keep a low profile.

When Netanyahu walked into the room with the media notables seated around a table, he was warm, friendly, and upbeat from the outset. He greeted them individually by name, shaking hands, making small talk as he moved gracefully around the room. During the session, he handled questions with aplomb, on point, articulate, and used colloquial expressions at times – it was easy to forget that he was the leader of a foreign country. He was thoroughly charming.

About 15 minutes after the meeting, while Netanyahu was taking a break, my Jewish media colleagues were ushered into the room. When we were settled in, the prime minister re-entered and immediately sat down at the head of the table. No schmoozing this time. He was all business and began, “OK, ask me your questions.”

A bit taken aback by the abrupt opening, the chair of our delegation asked if it would be all right for us to introduce ourselves briefly, stating our names and professional titles. Netanyahu agreed. When it was my turn, the prime minister looked closely at me and said, “You look familiar.”

I said, “I was with the first group here as well.”

What I wanted to add was, “I saw how engaging and friendly you can be if you want to make the effort. What’s your problem?”

For a split second, Netanyahu seemed a bit taken aback, but he just nodded and the introductions continued.

The mood of the session couldn’t have been more different to the earlier one. Though he was in the presence of loyal, influential Zionists who treated him with great respect, the prime minister was curt, contentious, and clearly couldn’t wait to be done with us.

“Ask me your questions.”

A few years later, when I was in Israel, I was granted a one-on-one interview with Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office. I was ushered in by an aide who announced my name as I sat down in a chair facing the prime minister. He wore a leather bomber jacket and was seated at his desk, reading through a document in front of him.

“Go ahead, ask me your questions,” he said without looking up. He was using a yellow outliner pen to mark his reading material.

I wasn’t sure how to proceed and waited for him to make eye contact. After a moment, he repeated his request. I waited again – it felt like minutes but was probably only a few seconds – before proceeding, reluctantly, with the interview.

I don’t remember the details of what transpired, only that I was thrown by Netanyahu’s rudeness, and that the agreed-on 45-minute session ended abruptly when an aide came in to announce that the prime minister was needed for a pressing matter. It seemed prearranged; the prime minister got up and followed him out of the office without a word or gesture to me.

One more: five years ago, at a Jewish media conference in Jerusalem I attended with dozens of colleagues from the US, Europe, and South America, Netanyahu addressed our group and was ornery from the outset. His manner was challenging and dismissive, interrupting the moderator, the Forward’s Jane Eisner, and suggesting alternative topics. At one point, he evaded a question about his government’s relations with American Jewry and responded, in effect, “Why not ask me about Israel’s impressive dairy output?” He then waxed eloquent on the subject, and had an aide display a chart on the wall with statistics about Israel’s prolific cows.

“After the session ended, some of the women journalists in the room were furious, sure that he acted as he did because I was the moderator,” Eisner wrote. “I appreciated their support, but male colleagues tell me that Netanyahu can be similarly dismissive to them, too.”

How does one explain this behaviour?

I turned to two close colleagues and veteran Bibi watchers – journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi in Jerusalem and Mideast expert David Makovsky in Washington – and asked why they think Netanyahu treats the Jewish media so shabbily. Is it because he doesn’t respect us as journalists? Or because he believes that diaspora communities are less relevant to Israeli politics? Or neither, or both?

“Bibi treats his friends worse than anyone,” Klein Halevi responded, “which is why, at the end of the day, he doesn’t have any. He takes them for granted and abuses their trust. That’s why this new government is being led, in part, by three of his former closest aides,” Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, and Gideon Saar.

“The American Jewish media was simply in his pocket,” Klein Halevi continued, “or so he assumed, and he could treat them with the special contempt he reserved for those on his side.”

Makovsky believes Netanyahu views the diaspora Jewish media in the larger context of his attitude toward American Jewry – seen as declining dramatically in relevance.

On a practical level, he noted, diaspora Jews don’t vote in Israeli elections and so are “less central for his [Netanyahu’s] purposes to cultivate”. Similarly, the prime minister focuses mainly on Israeli media, which he views as either for him or against him, so the diaspora media is less important.

The prime minister has told those who meet with him privately that with the exception of the Orthodox, “American Jews will last another generation or two … due to assimilation and low fertility rates,” Makovsky said. “This has enabled him to discount the liberal attitudes and voting trends of non-Orthodox American Jews and not think of the impact of a few of his policies on the relationship.”

In addition, Netanyahu has said in private that as long as he has the support in America of evangelical Christians, who vastly outnumber Jews, and the Orthodox Jewish community, he’s in good shape.

We’ll know in the coming days the shape of Netanyahu’s immediate future. But even if the “change” coalition is sworn in, no one who knows Bibi Netanyahu believes he can be counted out.

  • Gary Rosenblatt was editor and publisher of “The Jewish Week” from 1993 to 2019.

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