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Diaspora Minister: Barring entry to non-Israelis damages our ties with Jews abroad

Nachman Shai defends government decision made to stop COVID spread, saying Israeli public’s health is top priority, but recognizes its cost

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai speaks at the Israeli American Council's national summit on December 11, 2021. (Noam Galai)
Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai speaks at the Israeli American Council's national summit on December 11, 2021. (Noam Galai)

HOLLYWOOD BEACH, Florida — Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said Friday that Israel’s decision to shutter its borders to non-citizens is damaging its ties with Jews abroad.

“Yes, it it is damaging [ties]. I know it is, and it hurts me dearly because I very much want the relationship to continue,” Shai told The Times of Israel in an interview on the sidelines of the Israeli American Council’s national summit in Florida.

Amid the rise of the Omicron COVID-19 variant late last month, the Israeli government took the far-reaching step of shuttering its borders to foreigners for two weeks. On Thursday evening, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett ordered the directive be extended an additional ten days, through December 21.

Hours before the announcement, Bennett penned a letter to the Jewish Federations of North America in which he insisted that he was doing everything he could in order to reopen the country’s borders “as soon as possible.”

Shai defended the decision, saying that the government is taking important steps in order to ensure the health of the public in Israel.

He acknowledged that there are non-citizens who are fully vaccinated and willing to quarantine for three days upon entry, as is currently required of Israelis. “But the decision was to take maximum precautionary measures,” he said.

Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, on November 28, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“For Israelis, it’s their country and we must let them return. For everyone else, we’ll have to wait and see. I hope it won’t be for a long time,” Shai said.

As for exemptions for non-citizen participants in the Miss Universe contest and a flag football tournament, Shai said he wasn’t involved in those decisions, but speculated that the fact that they had been planned well in advance and would’ve cost significant money to cancel led to the decision to grant exceptions.

“When the [broader] policy was presented to the cabinet, I said I was prepared to support it, because my main priority is the health of the public in Israel and the operation of the country. Everything else will come afterward,” he said.

However, he said he recognized the pain the decision has caused, sharing several stories of parents who approached him at the Israeli American Committee conference to lament how they are unable to enter Israel to visit their children.

The full interview with Shai will be published in The Times of Israel in the coming days.

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