July 19, 2024
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Home Sweet Home…Even During a Pandemic

As the epidemic continues to unfold, we struggle with extremely complex dilemmas. We are now facing a bizarre and jarring situation in which world Jewry is barred from entering their homeland of Israel. We have been in this position before—in the early stages of the pandemic—but the renewal of these measures in the end of 2021 is disturbing. In the initial stages of COVID-19, much of the world shut its borders, in defense against a sudden, deadly and unpredictable plague. At this stage, however, much of the world is vaccinated. Travel hasn’t been restored to its pre-pandemic levels but, by and large, at least for vaccinated and tested travelers, borders remain open. Shuttering Israel to Jews feels “unnatural” and has elicited public frustration. Isn’t Israel the homeland for all Jews? Aren’t Jews expected to unconditionally defend Israel as their own country? If Israel is the country of all Jews under normal conditions, shouldn’t it also be their home during a crisis? Isn’t the state of Israel meant to function as a haven for Jews during emergencies?

This is an extremely important and sensitive issue and obviously, Israeli citizens aren’t best suited to comment upon it. Israeli citizens are guaranteed entry into Israel and our comments may come off as presumptuous. Nonetheless, it is an important enough issue to be discussed by both Israelis and overseas Jews.

First of all, as an Israeli citizen, I completely identify with the sense of insult. Israel is the heritage of every Jew across the globe and is far more than a “local” country belonging to a “particular” indigenous population. Some Jews enjoy the great privilege of actually residing in our collective homeland, while others have not yet received that honor. However, we are all partners in this great project of rebuilding Jewish history and resettling our ancient homeland. Israel belongs to history.

Living as a “historical citizen” of Israel carries both duty and privilege. The duties of every Jew toward our joint “historical” country are obvious: support, travel, political activism and general Israel consciousness. With those obligations, however, come privileges. For example, non-Israelis absolutely have a right and a responsibility to voice their political opinions about Israel. The decisions we take in Israel will impact our collective future, and these decisions, in theory, belong to every Jew. That being said, perhaps non-Israelis should voice their positions more cautiously, recognizing that they may be less sensitive to nuances that can only be appreciated “up close” through daily life in Israel. Fundamentally, though, rebuilding our homeland is a joint enterprise, and should animate every Jew’s religious and national identity. This gives every Jew a “seat at the table.”

This is precisely why the current situation is so frustrating. Jews are being sent away from that “table.” I would be disappointed if Jews outside of Israel weren’t disappointed by being denied entry into Israel. Lack of disappointment would signal lack of interest and lack of investment in our land.

On the other hand, Israel, along with the rest of the world, is struggling to contain a resurgent epidemic that threatens lives, economic stability and, at some point, even national security. Shouldn’t Jews be willing to sacrifice personal travel to contribute to Israeli public health and welfare? It is a complex and painful issue—especially for those separated from family. My comments merely attempt to shed some “perspective” upon the situation, rather than endorsing or opposing current policies.

A Jew’s relationship with Israel must supersede politics and policy. The land was delivered from God to our people as a historical gift. For centuries, this gift remained an abstract historical concept, inhabiting our prayers and our dreams. We fantasized about a land and a country that didn’t exist outside of our historical imagination. When Israel only existed in our imaginations it was easy to “idealize” the land. What happens when we actually return to this land? Reality sets in, and reality always leaves a lot to the imagination.

Disappointments that stem from life in the “actual” country of Israel should not quash our excitement about returning home for the first time in centuries. Let’s face it, the Israel of our imagination doesn’t contend with pandemics. In 2021, the actual “real-life” state of Israel is struggling to manage COVID-19. Reality comes at a price.

A little perspective goes a long way. This is the first time that we have undergone a pandemic in our homeland. Past pandemics weren’t too friendly to Jews, who often bore the brunt of post-pandemic anger and resentment. Thankfully, Jews across the world currently enjoy equal rights, including access to medical attention. If the price of this pandemic is partially restricted travel to Israel, we are far ahead of our ancestors, who suffered terribly during past pandemics.

Additionally, current travel restrictions—as painful as they are—resurrect an important “lost” sentiment in our relationship with Israel. We have forgotten what “longing” for Israel feels like. “Longing” is an important part of any relationship, and is crucial in our relationship with Israel. Our world of immediacy and instant feedback has stripped us of the important experience of longing. Longing and desiring are as much part of “love” as the experience itself. In fact, longing for something often builds deeper romance and desire. I am not sure that our generation appreciates the value of longing.

For centuries, Jews longed for their homeland. Thankfully, Israel has become completely accessible to every Jew. Transportation has afforded immediate access to Israel. Just imagine how many months our ancestors spent on a ship or on horseback anticipating their long-awaited arrival in Israel. How deeply did Jews long to tread in their homeland or caress the stones of the Kotel. Now, for the first time in decades, Jews can’t simply parachute overnight into Israel. In an odd fashion this period feels historically “familiar.” Many Jews are once again longing for a country they can’t immediately visit.

Shouldn’t this be an opportunity to reset our relationship with our homeland? Will this help us appreciate our great privilege of Israel now that we can no longer take it for granted? Perhaps those who can afford it should purchase a ticket to Israel and visit as soon as the shutdown is lifted. If Israel is really a “home away from home” shouldn’t everyone at least “check in” when the doors re-open? You never forget your home.

Longing for the day when every Jew can live in the homeland…


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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