Knesset panel mulls opening of skies, as thousands of students get okay to enter

With relatives of Israelis refused entry, committee chair says there should be ‘one rule for all’; Health Ministry opposes mass pilgrimage to Hasidic rabbi’s grave in Ukraine

Illustrtive: Brazilian immigrants to Israel in May 2020. (Olim do Brasil NGO via JTA)
Illustrtive: Brazilian immigrants to Israel in May 2020. (Olim do Brasil NGO via JTA)

The Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee was holding a lengthy discussion Tuesday on potentially easing restrictions on flights to and from Israel.

Committee chairwoman Yifat Shasha-Biton referred at the opening of the meeting to the approval given Monday for thousands of foreign students to come to Israel for the coming academic year, saying there should be “one rule for all.”

“If we can give assistance to a certain group, we need to help everyone,” she said. “If 16,000 yeshiva students enter, we should find a way to get everyone in.”

The Health Ministry representative, Asher Shalmon, meanwhile, said his ministry opposes any mass approval for Israelis to make a Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage in September to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Brastlav in Uman, Ukraine, a popular yearly event.

“Having 30,000 people travel there is an event that won’t be able to go ahead,” he said.

One key problem for opening Israel’s skies is the current infection rate, which is among the highest in the world and has caused most countries to stop considering mutual travel agreements.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study in small groups at the Imrei Emes yeshiva of the Gur (Hasidic dynasty) in the city of Bnei Brak, June 16, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

“We had reached understandings with many countries, until the day we again found ourselves a ‘red’ country and the countries backed away,” said Shalmon. “As long as we’re a ‘red’ country the only agreements we’ll have will be one-sided agreements allowing entry to Israel from ‘green’ countries.”

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.

MKs from the opposition have laced into Ronni Gamzu, who was appointed to the post of coronavirus czar last month, for the decision to allow entry to the students, warning it would import infections and put more strain on the healthcare system.

MK Merav Michaeli, a member of the coalition Labor party who votes with the opposition, petitioned the Interior Ministry, demanding explanations for the “serious discrimination” as family members of Israeli citizens have been denied entry into the country for months as a result of the pandemic.

Labor party MK Merav Michaeli speaks at a cultural event in Kfar Saba, February 2, 2019. (Flash90)

There are thousands of Israelis who have foreign partners and haven’t seen their loved ones for many months, with no solution on the horizon for them as of now.

Some of them were planning a protest Tuesday evening outside Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi’s home.

Plia Kettner, 35, whose partner, Eric, is Swedish and who earlier this year opened a Facebook group called “Families want to unite,” told Channel 12 she didn’t know when she’d see him again.

“We deal with it through phone and video calls and texting about any little thing that happens in our lives,” she said.

“I’m not envious of anyone,” she said, “but if they got it so should we. There aren’t that many couples and families like us and we won’t flood Israel.”

Maayan Tsuk-Ran, 27, whose partner, Benjamin, is German, said she missed him and was frustrated they couldn’t meet and he couldn’t attend her graduation recital at the Jerusalem Academy of Music.

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

“We hoped to meet at least for a few days but hit a brick wall,” she said. “It’s frustrating that the country for which I served in the army and in which I live is causing me to feel I don’t belong. I’m happy for those allowed to enter but we have a reason that is just as valid.”

The arriving 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.

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.

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.

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