Coronavirus czar okays entry of around 17,000 foreign students to Israel
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Coronavirus czar okays entry of around 17,000 foreign students to Israel

Days after signaling opposition, Ronni Gamzu approves plan to allow in thousands of yeshiva and university students, warns against violating quarantine conditions

Illustrative: Yeshiva students study at the Mir Brachfeld yeshiva in Modi'in Ilit on August 26, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Illustrative: Yeshiva students study at the Mir Brachfeld yeshiva in Modi'in Ilit on August 26, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

The official tasked with leading Israel’s response to the coronavirus approved a plan on Monday to allow thousands of foreign students into the country, days after signaling opposition to approving their entry.

According to a Health Ministry statement, 2,000 university students and 12,000 yeshiva students will be permitted to enter Israel for their respective programs. Another 5,000 participants in Masa programs, 500 high school exchange students on the Naale program and 1,500 people at private institutions will also be allowed into the country.

A ministry statement said 17,000 students were being let in, though it was unclear how the figures were meant to match up.

The ministry also did not say when the students would begin being allowed in. Israel currently bars nearly all foreign nationals. All arrivals, whether Israeli or not, are supposed to quarantine for two weeks.

Under the plan signed off on Monday, students will be required to isolate in capsules of up to six people for 14 days after arrival. Only institutions that receive Health Ministry approval will be allowed to host them.

Ronni Gamzu, the coronavirus czar, instructed ministry officials to enlist special inspectors to oversee quarantine conditions at the institutions hosting foreign students.

“A violation of the [quarantine] conditions is a violation of the conditions of staying in Israel — and all that implies for both the student and institution,” the ministry statement warned.

The statement also appeared to defend the decision amid expected pushback.

“Prof. Gamzu stressed that in this complicated period there needs to be a balance between safeguarding public health and safeguarding the values of the country and the connection with world Jewry,” it said.

Gamzu said Sunday that any foreign students violating quarantine could be deported.

The announcement comes after Gamzu criticized the decision to let in the students before the fall holidays in an interview Saturday. Many of the yeshiva students are expected to come from the United States, the country hardest hit by the pandemic.

Ronni Gamzu at a press conference on July 28, 2020 (YouTube screenshot)

“We need to do the wise thing here and prevent another conflagration,” Gamzu told Channel 12 news.

Monday’s announcement was met with criticism from several lawmakers.

“It was announced today that it’s been decided to approve the entry of 17,000 yeshiva pupils and students who aren’t Israeli citizens, while relatives of Israeli citizens have been refused entry for many months,” Labor MK Merav Michaeli wrote on Twitter. “I would like to ask: 1. In what world? 2. Why are yeshiva students and students allowed over relatives of Israeli citizens?”

The decision also prompted a shouting match between MK Eli Avidar of the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu party and ultra-Orthodox Shas MK Yaakov Asher during a meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

“You’re killing your community,” Avidar yelled at Asher, the committee chair. Asher retorted by accusing Avidar of “anti-Semitism.”

The plan to allow foreign students into the country despite an ongoing ban against non-nationals arriving was agreed on last week by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the head of Shas.

On Friday, Edelstein noted that the program allowing the entry of foreign students was not formulated only for the ultra-Orthodox community. He said criticism of the decision was “anti-Semitism,” apparently referring to anti-Haredi sentiment.

Most programs for yeshiva studies are expected to begin around the last week of August. Universities and other programs start in September or after the holidays in mid-October.

The empty arrival hall at Ben Gurion Airport on June 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Last month, the Calcalist business daily reported that the cancellation of trips for Jewish youths and young adults due to the coronavirus crisis was set to cost the Israeli economy about $200 million.

In the Channel 12 interview, Gamzu expressed support for resuming air travel into Israel by mid-August.

According to the latest Health Ministry figures, there are 25,167 active coronavirus cases in Israel, out of 73,231 recorded since the start of the pandemic. The active cases include 334 people in serious condition, with 100 on ventilators.

There have been 541 deaths from the virus.

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