Travel restrictions for South Africans discriminatory and unnecessary, olim say
Over the past 18 months, hundreds of South African olim and their family members have been unable to see each other thanks to Israel’s draconian travel restrictions.
Complaining that they feel discriminated against, these olim are now asking why they cannot see their South African families when tourists can come to Israel on holiday, the “South African” variant is no longer the dominant variant of COVID-19, and family members have been vaccinated.
Writing on the Facebook group “Reunite Olim with Their Families” on 23 July 2021, one young oleh, Josh Sher, described his frustration. “At this point, it’s apparent that most countries are struggling with the same Delta variant. First-degree relatives of olim have been granted permission to enter the country to visit their loved ones from all over the world. However, for South African olim living in Israel, our families have not been allowed into the country,” he wrote.
“South Africans are receiving the Pfizer vaccine, and will go through the same process as every other country in order to fly to Israel [taking a polymerase chain reaction test before flying, proving vaccination, filling out the necessary documentation, etc] but South African parents and first-degree family members of olim are still not allowed to travel to Israel,” he wrote.
“The situation seems extremely prejudiced. The Israeli government allocates time and resources to encourage young individuals to make aliyah, yet now that we are here, with no support or family for many of us, we have had to go nearly two years with our families being denied the right to see us,” Sher wrote. “We have been given no indication that these laws might adjust in the near future and as olim, many of us are left feeling discouraged, disappointed, alone, and hopeless.”
He asked if anyone could “offer advice or suggest a platform where we can unite and voice this concern. Perhaps form a petition that calls for those South African family members that can prove their vaccination to be granted permission to enter Israel just like all the other countries experiencing this Delta variant.”
His post elicited a flood of responses from Israelis with family in South Africa. “Thank you for this post. I’m absolutely fuming day in and day out. This is ruining people’s lives,” wrote one person.
“I’m a South African olah getting married at the end of August, and due to this ridiculousness, my parents and siblings most probably won’t be coming,” wrote another user. “I haven’t seen my family for two years. I’m expecting a baby soon, and they won’t let in my vaccinated parents in from South Africa. It’s not fair nor logical,” said a third woman.
“I feel like Israel is determined to alienate world Jewry … and it feels like the Israeli government, while undeniably trying to protect its populace, is playing a ruthless game of cat and mouse with many of us who just cannot fit into narrow criteria. The dividing lines have little to do with public health, or the criteria aren’t really thought through,” wrote another member of the group.
Another South African, speaking on condition of anonymity, said her mother tried endless channels to be allowed into Israel to see her dying sister. Even after she was fully vaccinated, she was denied permission, and the sister has since passed away. “Coupled with her grief is extreme disappointment at not being able to fulfil her duty to be with the family at this time of loss. It’s been devastating for her.”
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Israel, Sher said, “I made aliyah in April this year. My sister, who made aliyah about four years ago, has been trying to see my parents for the past year and a half. We have tried so many times, both to go back to South Africa and to get my parents here. But we get fined 5 000 shekels [R22 290] for going to a country on the red list [which South Africa has been on for the past year and a half].
“For South Africans, it’s practically impossible to get here. They would have to travel to a ‘green’ country, spend two weeks there, and then apply for a permission letter to enter Israel, which isn’t guaranteed. All this is also extremely costly. In addition, it’s a COVID-19 risk to go in and out of different airports.
“What frustrates most of us is the fact that now South Africans are being vaccinated and some – like my parents – have been vaccinated twice already with Pfizer. This is the same vaccine they are giving to Israelis. Moreover, the largest cohort of South African olim made aliyah to Israel last week.”
Sher said he suffered from a chronic illness, so when he tested positive for COVID-19 recently, “I honestly just needed my parents support”, but they weren’t allowed in. “It’s unjust considering the fact that just yesterday, I passed about 20 maybe 30 American young adults on a tour, as well as another group (20+) of Asian tourists. How are these individuals any less at risk of spreading the virus than fully vaccinated South Africans who aren’t coming on a holiday but rather to visit their children? We see this as extremely unfair.”
Asked if Telfed could help, he said, “This is more about having the support of my parents here, and they [Telfed] could never really fill that gap.”
Liat Amar Arran, the director of the Israel Centre South Africa, said these are government regulations, but the centre is “trying to help [Israel] understand how much the Jewish community is suffering as a result of these regulations. The Jewish Agency is trying hard to fight for [the easing of regulations] but we do respect the health ministry’s decision. We had a meeting between it and [local virology expert] Professor [Barry] Schoub, and we’re trying to arrange another meeting to present data from here.”
Schoub told the SA Jewish Report that “the prolonging of the restrictive blacklist of travel to and from South Africa by Israeli authorities is difficult to understand from a public-health point of view. It continues to cause considerable frustration and, in some cases, great hardship, and is unnecessary.
“Certainly, it can be appreciated that the Israeli authorities were understandably cautious when that country seemingly brought COVID-19 under control with one of the most successful vaccine campaigns in the world,” he said. “In the earlier part of the year, keeping a wary eye on the Beta variant made good public-health sense. It’s the most difficult of all the variants to tame with the vaccine, and it was the dominant variant in South Africa.
“However, the highly contagious Delta variant has changed the picture significantly. The Beta variant has almost disappeared from South Africa, and has now been replaced by Delta, similarly dominant in Israel.
“There is no evidence that the extent of the circulation of the virus is more extensive in South Africa,” Schoub said. “In fact, Israel, with a current seven-day average of daily cases of 250.7 per million population, is even 35% higher than the 185.9 per million population in South Africa. Of course, with the extensive vaccination coverage in Israel, the mortality rate there – 0.47 per million population – is 12 times lower than the 5.75 per million population for South Africa.
“It therefore makes little epidemiological sense to fear importation of this variant virus into Israel, and to continue this unnecessary blacklisting of travel from South Africa,” Schoub said.
The SA Jewish Report reached out to Israel’s Department of Health but it chose not to comment.