(July 16, 2020 / JNS) Of the many transformative realities imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps the most evident on the global scale is how it has forced nations suddenly to develop identities that are wholly independent of those in other countries and regions.
With borders closed and international travel considerably slowed, the traffic between nations has decreased to levels not seen in decades, reversing the march towards globalization. As we have seen in recent weeks, superpowers like the United States have been brought to their knees by this unforgiving virus, with many people trapped in their own countries unable to travel or conduct business in the traditional manner.
Israel was one of the first nations to embrace the idea of closing borders as a means to limit the transmission of the virus. This decision significantly limited the spread—at least in the first wave. Since that time, the borders have remained largely closed, and the only people allowed to enter the country are Israeli citizens or immediate family members of citizens who receive special permission.
This presents a very unique challenge and dilemma for Israel, because “citizenship” of the Jewish state deserves to be regarded through a different lens from other kinds of citizenship.
Indeed, Israel was founded on the idea that it is the “state of the Jewish people,” and based on that understanding, every Jew is afforded automatic citizenship should he or she decide to move to Israel.
This Law of Return reflects the very ethos of Israel’s role as a modern Jewish country, and its importance can in no way be overstated. Promoting aliyah—Jewish immigration to Israel—is a national priority that demands and deserves significant resources to ensure that Israel lives up to the responsibility to the Jewish Diaspora that came with its independence in 1948.
The existence of this law and the ideals behind it, thus, have an impact on Israel’s very decision-making process during the current coronavirus crisis. While there is justified concern about opening borders to people from nations where the virus is out of control, Israel’s responsibility to welcome Jews as fellow citizens must remain paramount. Every Jew who wants to come home to Israel should be welcomed with open arms.
I would say that even those who are seriously considering aliyah and would like to come to Israel to investigate (on a “pilot trip”) must similarly be welcomed, as they are agents of the mitzvah of settling the land.
Of course, Israel is facing a challenge where the guidelines are dictated by health concerns, and those cannot be disregarded. Quarantines must be observed, and every measure must be adhered to so that, God forbid, people arriving wouldn’t be contributing to the further spread of the disease.
There is also an ethical responsibility on the part of the new immigrants themselves to recognize that this commitment to aliyah should not be viewed with anything other than the utmost seriousness.
The decision to come home to Israel is perhaps one of the most respected and admirable actions a Diaspora Jew can take in modern times. But it is imperative that Israel not be viewed simply as a place of “refuge,” chosen as a temporary escape from the ravages of COVID-19 in another country where the situation might be viewed as better. Aliyah is a tremendous physical and emotional investment in the ancient idea that the Jewish homeland is the center where we can live, raise our families and build our national future.
So, to those who join us Israelis in embracing that remarkable and historic path of nation-building, I salute you, both in these difficult days and all days, and say, Baruchim Haba’im—welcome home!
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics and one of the founders of Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.
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