Critics claim 'amateur hour' at the Interior Ministry

Foreign university students trickle back into Israel, as yeshiva students banned

Postdocs, medical students and others for whom distance learning is not possible arrive at special quarantine dorms at universities

Illustrative: Students seen at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, October 27, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)
Illustrative: Students seen at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, October 27, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)

Foreign students enrolled in Israeli universities have begun trickling back into the country under recently eased Interior Ministry guidelines, even as their counterparts enrolled in yeshivas here have had their permission to return suddenly rescinded, leading to confusion and anger.

At universities across the country, administrators have established special quarantine facilities to allow returnees — primarily graduate students, postdocs and medical students with still-valid visas — to spend their government-mandated two-week seclusion period on campus in line with regulations published by the Interior Ministry on May 25.

Many students had returned to their home countries during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new regulations initially applied to universities, academic colleges and yeshivas as well as various MASA and Naaleh programs. MASA is a joint project of the Jewish Federations, Jewish Agency and Israeli government that runs a variety of educational and volunteer programs in Israel which typically last between five months and a year; Naaleh is a Jewish Agency program through which Diaspora teenagers can finish high school in Israel.

A worker wearing protective clothing disinfect a gym at the Tel Aviv University Sports Center, May 6, 2020. (Flash90)

A student’s return to Israel is dependent upon signing a health declaration and agreeing to immediately go into seclusion on campus. Universities are required to deal directly with the Interior Ministry to arrange permission for their students as well as to provide transportation from the airport and make sure their needs are met so they do not have to go outside during their isolation period.

Israeli universities are “working diligently to ensure that they are in line with all of the regulations of the Health Ministry and at the same time are interested in bringing students back to make sure they have an adequate experience and continue their studies,” Marissa Gross Yarm, head of International Student Affairs at the Council for Higher Education, told The Times of Israel.

And while much of university life has moved online, not everything can be done remotely, she said.

Amanda Katz. (Courtesy)

Some students, like Amanda Katz, were allowed to return even before the new guidelines were officially made public. A 25-year-old medical student from Toronto, Katz is currently enrolled at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine, where she is doing clinical rotations.

She returned to Canada in March on one of the last flights before Israel shut down most air travel in and out of the country and returned three weeks ago on a flight with 11 other students.

There was initially “a lot of uncertainty regarding getting back to Israel and if we would have to go to quarantine hotels or back home” to the university, she said.

“We went straight from the airport to our dorms and were greeted by four supervisors and we got our rooms. They laid out care packages for us and when we got to our rooms we found new sheets and pillows and pots and pans and everything we needed for two weeks.”

Calling the two weeks in isolation “a much more pleasant experience” than she would have imagined, Katz praised her university for “going out of its way to make sure we were comfortable and advocating for us to get back in the country.”

A room in the Maiersdorf Faculty Club at Hebrew University that has been set aside to serve as a coronavirus hotel for returning foreign students. (Sam Sokol)

“I would say it was a trickle,” she said when asked how many other foreign students were beginning to return. “My dorm building had about 12 people in it and I believe several days after there was another group of students, around eight to 12.”

According to Maureen Meyer Adiri, Tel Aviv University’s international director, some 650 out of around 1,300 foreign students left during the pandemic. Thirty-five have already returned, and another 65 have requested to do so.

The university, she said, has the capacity to quarantine up to 50 students at a time.

The challenge, however, is not capacity but rather the logistics of air travel, she added, noting that a number of students have had their flights canceled, preventing their return.

One student who has attempted to return but has been unable to do so is Dr. Ayan Mukherjee, a postdoc at Bar-Ilan University conducting research on rechargeable batteries who left in March to ride out the pandemic with his family.

Dr. Ayan Mukherjee. (Courtesy)

“It’s definitely very frustrating,” he said, during a phone interview from his home in Durgapur, India, adding that there are at least 40-50 Indian students trying to make their way back to Israel. “There are many PhD and Masters students who want to complete their degrees,” he said.

But while they all have official permission to return, “due to the nonavailability of flights we’re not able to reach there.”

According to a spokeswoman for Bar-Ilan University, most of their foreign students opted to remain in Israel during the crisis and that it is assisting students looking to return “to find a suitable location within the University dorms to quarantine.”

Fabian Hoelzgen, a German student working on a doctorate in Life Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, was one of the foreign students who stayed behind.

He said that his Israeli roommates moved back in with their parents and that as the campus emptied he found himself increasingly isolated.

“It was a different feeling because I worked alone in the lab and stayed alone in the flat, but for me the escape was the work so I worked more,” he said. “I’m glad that finally more and more students are coming back.”

“We turned one of the dorm buildings in Beersheba into a 14-day quarantine unit and we have a building in Sde Boker where we have another campus and a large international student population,” said university spokesman Ehud Zion-Waldoks.

A building in Sde Boker turned into a temporary quarantine dormitory by Ben Gurion University. (Dani Machlis/BGU)

“When they are in quarantine, we provide for all of their needs (since they can’t leave, obviously). They are responsible for taking their temperature and reporting any symptoms. Some students have already been through that process and have returned to their studies and their apartments/dorms.”

However, because of the scarcity of international flights, he said, the university has begun shifting as much of its curriculum online as possible.

At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, administrators have turned approximately 23 rooms in the Mount Scopus campus’s Maiersdorf Faculty Club into a temporary coronavirus hotel.

“We made a list of places from which they can order food and which are able to bring the food or groceries,” said Hebrew University International Liaisons coordinator Limor Levy.

“The process of working with the Interior Ministry began two-three weeks ago and since they started the process it works really well.”

Most of those returning are postdocs and doctoral students engaged in research and lab work which requires a physical presence on campus, she explained. Those who aren’t can attend classes via Zoom.

“Israeli students are not here so there is no reason for international students to be here as well,” she explained.

While the number of active COVID-19 cases in Israel had dropped significantly, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to begin reopening the country early last month, recent weeks have seen a resurgence of the virus, leading to concern among many Israelis that should the situation deteriorate further, restrictions could be put back in place.

“We’re always worried because the situation is not clear and we don’t know what will happen in two weeks,” said Levy. “We are living in really uncertain times.”

Yeshiva confusion

This has certainly been true for yeshivas.

While initially included in the new regulations, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri last Wednesday announced that he would halt the entrance of unmarried yeshiva students into the country “because of the worsening of the coronavirus epidemic in Israel.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews at the Chabad yeshiva, in Safed, August 13, 2018. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA) declined to elaborate on the reasons for this decision, which allowed the continued entry of married students enrolled in kollels, or yeshivas for married students.

The new regulations were released while seven yeshiva students, three of them attendees of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, were in the air on a flight from New York, a source close to the situation told The Times of Israel.

Upon landing they were denied entry to Israel until their yeshiva administrators intervened with the Interior Ministry and they were allowed to go into quarantine at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem, he said.

“They may be moved or they may not be moved to the yeshiva,” the source said. “It’s amateur hour at the Interior Ministry.”

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