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.
“We could do much more together,” Israeli ambassador tells Ramaphosa
Israel’s new ambassador to South Africa, Eliav Belotsercovsky, rubbed elbows with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa when he presented his credentials to him on Tuesday, 25 January, at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House in Tshwane.
Ramaphosa was courteous and smiling as Belotsercovsky told him about how the relationship between their countries could improve and how Israel could help South Africa.
“We believe there’s tremendous potential in us working together,” the Israeli ambassador told Ramaphosa. “Together, we can share dreams and together, we can fulfil them.”
Belotsercovsky said that South Africa was a shining example of a peaceful and dignified transition under the enlightened and courageous leadership of Nelson Mandela. He said the country’s democratic transformation took place with an independent judicial system and a free press.
But most importantly, he said, it was achieved through dialogue and “Israel is looking forward to upgrading our bilateral dialogue. There’s so much we can do together in the future in science and technology, education and training, food security, and climate change.”
He used the example of South African and Israeli scientists working together to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak as an example of successful co-operation.
Israel’s government is based on “a rainbow coalition” Belotsercovsky said, which represents an excellent example of partnership between religious and secular Jews and Arabs, people of European and African origins, politicians and technocrats, all united in the task of fulfilling the dreams of the next generation.
He went on to tell the president about the phenomenal ways Israel is already using its technology and knowhow to work successfully in South Africa, and said he hoped there was much more they could do together.
Legal amendment puts Lithuanian citizenship in reach
Thousands of Litvak Jews around the world stand a much better chance at getting Lithuanian citizenship based on ancestry since the law was amended last week.
A bill to amend Lithuania’s Law on Citizenship was unanimously passed in Lithuania’s Seimas (parliament) last Thursday, 20 January. It will have far-reaching positive implications for future applicants, many of whom had unsuccessfully tried and lost hope of obtaining citizenship.
This follows a year of extensive lobbying efforts from many quarters. It involved various iterations of a draft bill which was revised and redrafted several times, according to those involved, leading to last week’s vote, in which 110 members of parliament from across Lithuania’s political spectrum supported the bill.
Lithuanian Ambassador to South Africa Dainius Junevičius said the bill clarified that anyone who was a citizen of the Republic of Lithuania before 15 June 1940 was eligible for reinstatement of their citizenship on condition that there were no decisions adopted on their loss of citizenship.
This is a huge relief to many whose applications were rejected by the Lithuanian migration department, some pending indefinitely with others being placed on hold.
The application jam stemmed from a Lithuanian Supreme Court decision a few years ago which opened the law up for interpretation, making it much tougher, and which dramatically slowed down applications, causing enormous frustration.
In addition to what was always accepted as sufficient proof of Lithuanian citizenship, applicants were also required to provide proof that their Lithuanian immigrant ancestors actively sought to maintain their Lithuanian citizenship once in South Africa (or their new country of residence) until 15 June 1940.
This was a dramatic departure from the original position, which never required proof that citizenship was actively maintained after leaving Lithuania.
“This was a major obstacle for applicants as in almost all cases, no such proof exists. It also had far-reaching implications for all future citizenship applications,” said Lithuanian emigration consultant Nida Degutienė from Next Steps. Her company assists South Africans and others to obtain Lithuanian citizenship by helping to source the required documentation for reinstatement of their citizenship. She told the SA Jewish Report many of her clients’ applications had been declined by the migration department because of this.
In some cases where families had applied at different times using the same source documents, some had been granted citizenship, while others had been rejected.
However, this will soon change, said an elated Degutienė, who believes last week’s vote will pave the way forward for many South African Jews to successfully apply for citizenship.
“Less than a year ago, I was telling a story of a ridiculous court ruling which was applied to an unlucky Litvak family whose application for Lithuanian citizenship was rejected. Now I’m so happy to announce that the law has been amended, and this particular family, as many more, will be free to receive their passports.”
Degutienė and many others including politicians and lawyers in Lithuania and members of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies campaigned tirelessly for the amendment.
“I was really frustrated about the grey zone in the citizenship legislation which was used by Lithuanian institutions to create rules and obstacles that made many South African Litvaks ineligible for a Lithuanian passport,” said Degutienė. “The only way to solve this impossible situation was to change the law as any other solution would have been too temporary, and we would have had to depend on court procedures which are lengthy and costly.”
She said it had been a tough road.
“Not many colleagues or competitors believed I would succeed, but now as you see, if you put all your heart and effort into something, sooner or later it results in positive developments.”
Said Junevičius, “As we welcome this move by the Republic of Lithuania, removing many barriers to apply for the reinstatement of Lithuanian citizenship, we anticipate deepening connection with ancestral land and fully expect an exponential growth in economic relations and tourism.”
The director of AccessEU, Nicole Marcus, said this week, “AccessEU looks forward to overturning the negative decisions and restoring our 100% success record. Over the years, we’ve experienced changes to the requirements and process, at times becoming very difficult if not near impossible, and at other times easing somewhat. We urge everyone who is eligible to use this opportunity to apply for Lithuanian citizenship before any new interpretations might close the doors once again.”
Before the bill becomes law, Lithuania’s president will need to sign the bill into effect, and this is expected to happen soon.
Once enacted into law, the effect of this amendment will be to remove the requirement that one’s Lithuanian ancestor must have actively maintained their Lithuanian citizenship until 14 June 1940. That requirement was strictly enforced by the migration department since December 2020 following the Supreme Court decision in November 2020, when an application for citizenship with no supporting Lithuanian documentation was brought, causing serious ramifications for many other applicants.
Many applicants were refused citizenship on the basis that their Lithuanian ancestor had naturalised prior to 15 June 1940. Now the prospects of success for those applicants have been revived.
According to insiders, many hundreds of applications are believed to have been waiting for years for a decision following various procedural and then interpretative changes. Hundreds of applications which are currently held in suspense pending queries from Lithuania’s migration department which had been almost impossible to satisfy will now need to be reconsidered.
The migration department will probably take some time to work through the backlog, and applicants shouldn’t expect immediate results. They should keep in mind that the change in the law doesn’t mean that every applicant will be successful as each application will depend on its own supporting documentation which varies from one family to the next, insiders say.
Applicants are still required to prove that their Lithuanian ancestor left Lithuania after 16 February 1918 (the Republic of Lithuania’s initial date of independence) and must still prove with Lithuanian documentation that they held Lithuanian citizenship and departed from Lithuania.
One of the questions still being asked is whether those whose ancestors arrived in South Africa prior to 1918 will be able to apply for a passport.
“The answer is no,” said Degutienė. “This law does not extend the right of applying to those who emigrated earlier than the State of Lithuania was established, and it’s unlikely this will ever change.”
Degutienė said the amendment wouldn’t have been made possible without the help of Lithuanian Member of Parliament Dalia Asanavičiūtė. “Without her persistence and resilience against huge pressure from the migration department and opposition, and her deep understanding and respect for Jews, this change would never have been possible.”
Junevičius said the amendment was a very positive development, and would probably ensure the success of many pending and future applications.
He encouraged prospective passport holders to show an interest in Lithuania, saying that amongst other things, the country offered a broad range of international study programmes taught in English in its 19 universities and 22 colleges at a highly competitive price.
Nearly 8 000 students from 127 countries in the world including South Africa and Israel studied in Lithuania in the 2020 to 2021 academic year, Junevičius said. “The reasons to choose Lithuania as your study destination are multiple, but the main ones are high quality world-class education for an affordable price in an attractive European country.”
As for business opportunities, Junevičius said that for the past 20 years, Lithuania had been the fastest growing economy in the European Union in terms of gross domestic product per capita, with a “highly favourable business environment” with top rankings and ratings.
“Things here get done quicker and better because the doers – from students and engineers to the go-to advisors at Invest Lithuania – are agile, ambitious, and driven by big ideas. And when it comes to big ideas, we don’t dabble, we explore, from gene and cell therapy to the latest in machine learning.”
Hostage crisis hits close to home for Cape Town rabbi
It was the middle of the night when Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation’s (Temple Israel’s) Rabbi Greg Alexander (Rabbi Greg) heard that a fellow faith leader was being held hostage in a Texas shul on Saturday, 15 January.
Although the shocking event was unfolding across the oceans, it hit hard as he realised he knew the rabbi being held hostage.
“Suddenly the world felt small again. It took a moment to register that this was happening,” says Rabbi Greg. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants escaped around the same time that an elite FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) hostage rescue team breached the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, after an 11-hour standoff. The hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram, was killed.
“My wife, student rabbi Andi, and I met Rabbi Charlie in 2001 when we lived in Jerusalem,” recalls Rabbi Greg. “Andi and Rabbi Charlie’s wife, Adena, studied together at the liberal Bet Midrash on King David Street. Rabbi Charlie was a rabbinical student. We spent some Shabbatot together, and stayed in touch when they went back to the United States and we moved to London.
“We met them at the height of the Second Intifada when there were bombings in Jerusalem,” he says. “It was a time of fear and uncertainty then, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like now to be in that synagogue, or for her watching and waiting…”
“We haven’t seen Charlie or Adena for nearly 20 years even though we have followed each other online, and have gone in similar directions in our rabbinic work,” he says. “They are such amazing people, and are working every day for a better world. It’s so important to know in talking about this attack that of the many social-justice causes he initiated, his synagogue has specifically reached out to local Muslim communities and hosted them for Ramadan.” Temple Israel has done the same.
As the hostage crisis unfolded during an online Shabbat service, Rabbi Greg was alerted to the news a million miles away in time and place, late on Saturday night (South African time).
“We found out while Rabbi Charlie was still being held with the other hostages in the synagogue. The network of progressive rabbis around the world were all sharing what little information they could find, and we watched with horror to see what would unfold. Many people davened for their safe release. Of course, you immediately think of your own shul, wondering if it could happen to you. We are blessed in South Africa not to have experienced the levels of antisemitic violence we have seen in Europe or America, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Please G-d it won’t, ever.”
At times like this, “his synagogue could be any synagogue”, he says. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.” In fact, when Rabbi Greg posted on Facebook that he was praying for the safety of Cytron-Walker, a local Chabad rabbi commented on his post, “We are all praying for their safe release. Please G-d we will hear good news soon.”
Rabbi Greg says Cytron-Walker is “the definition of a good guy – a mensch of the first order. He’s kind, generous, and quick with a smile. As a rabbi, he has always emphasised peace work, social justice, and interfaith work. Everyone has commented on how calm and unflappable he was throughout the crisis.”
He says this isn’t the time to lose hope in connecting with other communities. “We will continue to reach out to our interfaith partners to build bridges of understanding in our local community.”
Asked if he ever imagined something like this happening in the shul of a fellow rabbi, Rabbi Greg says, “I’m well aware of how incidents of unapologetic Jew-hatred have increased in the world in the past decade. Ten years ago, nobody thought we would be living through this kind of violence and verbal attacks, but it’s now sadly commonplace.”
In fact, after the deadly Pittsburgh attack in which 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue on 27 October 2018, Cytron-Walker wrote to people from other communities who had supported his congregation by expressing their grief.
“When I heard about the deadly attack in the middle of our Sabbath service, the feeling was all too familiar,” he wrote at the time. “The emptiness and the pain, the anger and the helplessness. Too many times in Jewish history we faced tragedy without love or support. Too many times to count, we were left to pick up the pieces of tragedy and destruction. Believe me, the love and support matters. It’s something we all should be able to expect of each other. Thank you for helping us through these dark times. Thank you for standing together. When it comes to hatred and violence, we must all stand together.”
In the aftermath of his own ordeal, he once again thanked others for their support. “I’m thankful and filled with appreciation for all the vigils, prayers, love, and support, all the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all the security training that helped save us. I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for the CBI [Congregation Beth Israel] community, the Jewish community, the human community. I’m grateful that we made it out. I’m grateful to be alive.”
His words echo that of a psalm which Rabbi Greg says is one to remember at this time. “Psalm 116: 7-11 from the full Hallel in Rabbi Edward Feld’s beautiful translation in Siddur Lev Shalem reads: “‘Be at ease,’ I said to myself, ‘for Hashem has done this for you.’ You have saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I shall walk in G-d’s presence in the land of the living.”
“I hope Rabbi Charlie and the congregants taken hostage can ease their hearts with Hallel psalms,” Rabbi Greg says. “There’s nothing like tehillim for articulating how it feels to be freed from terrible danger.”
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