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Israel

Israel travel ban leaves SA olim high and dry

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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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