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Opening the skies? Let’s make sure we have our feet on the ground

With a quarter of Israelis out of work, thousands of new COVID-19 cases daily and parents unsure of what to expect when the school year starts, reopening the skies feels like a hollow victory.

Israir Airlines flight attendants in full protective gear on a flight between Tel Aviv and Eilat on Aug. 17, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Israir Airlines flight attendants in full protective gear on a flight between Tel Aviv and Eilat on Aug. 17, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Chaim Perkal
Chaim Perkal

Israeli media triumphantly announced last week the return of quarantine-free leisure air travel to countries including Bulgaria and Croatia.

I don’t fault anyone for being excited about this news. The last few months have been incredibly stressful, especially on families with young children, and I understand the desire to relax and recharge outside of Israel.

I also understand the importance of keeping Israel’s air pathways open and functional. As former Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett recently said, “Israel is an island, it has no viable land connection to any country in the world, so we depend on flights.”

But I question the need to celebrate reopening the skies when the reality on the ground is shaky.

First off, reopening the skies probably won’t boost Israel’s troubled economy. Israel is classified as a “red” country by most of the world. A mandatory two-week quarantine upon returning to one’s home country will likely put off potential tourists. Business owners and workers from the battered tourism industry aren’t preparing for droves of foreign visitors.

A poll by the Central Bureau of Statistics found that nearly half of Israelis are worried they won’t be able to pay their monthly expenses. Fourteen percent reported that they or a family member had reduced their food intake due to financial concerns.

With so many in dire straits financially, it’s hard to imagine many Israelis will be taking advantage of the opportunity to jet off to Greece for the weekend.

Another reason I can’t celebrate the reopening of the skies is because of the danger Israel is currently facing from this second wave of mass infections.

Back in May, Israel was hailed as a model for managing the pandemic. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a sweeping lockdown that closed all schools and nonessential businesses, new cases steadily ground to a halt.

After two months of closures, the infection rate dropped to a low of just five new cases recorded on May 24, and a remarkably low number of fatalities. With the feeling that the Jewish state had defeated the virus, Israelis, encouraged by the government, jumped back into pre-pandemic-style social gatherings.

Thankfully, Israel continues to enjoy one of the world’s lowest COVID-19 morbidity rates, but there are now thousands of new cases recorded daily. It’s clear that we are deep in the throes of another wave of the virus, one that shows little sign of fading away.

Many health experts blame the rushed reopening of schools for the second wave of the pandemic. Tens of elementary to high schools proved to be outbreak epicenters for thousands of infections. Tens of thousands of parents, teachers and students were sent into quarantine.

But despite the slated Sept. 1 back-to-school date, parents still have yet to receive detailed plans about what Israel learned from the failures of the first school reopenings, and what safety procedures will be put in place to prevent such a situation from happening again.

Twenty percent of Israelis are out of work. There are thousands of new coronavirus cases recorded daily. Children are supposed to go back to school in a few short weeks, and parents are unsure of what to expect.

Reopening the skies feels like a hollow victory. Let’s shift our priorities to dealing with these critical issues before we start packing our suitcases for a getaway.

Rabbi Chaim Perkal is the director and founder of Alei Siach, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit organization providing all-inclusive solutions for people living with special needs and their families.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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