Miss Universe and the Israel-Diaspora crisis – opinion

The Jewish State needs to adopt rational policies around admitting tourists, or risk causing irreparable damage to its relationship with Diaspora Jewry.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

As masked, beautiful Miss Universe hopefuls from some 80 countries landed in Israel and waved to the waiting cameras on the tarmac, many in the Jewish State were outraged.

Not because of the nature of the pageant, but for the fact that the Israeli government had sent a message that it prioritizes the glitz, glamour, and positive publicity that such an event brings over the wishes of its own citizens to reunite with their family members.

Let’s back up. In March 2020, Israel became one of the first countries in the world to lock down its borders in order to keep out the coronavirus…and not much has changed since then.

Foreigners not welcome

Despite a widespread vaccine roll-out, one of the world’s lowest per-capita coronavirus death rates, and manageable infection rates which have seen no more than a few hundred people – mostly children – diagnosed each day, Israel has chosen to maintain extremely restrictive policies on who can enter the country.

Aside from diplomats, celebrities, and athletes (see the February 2021 Judo tournament), non-Israelis have mostly been banned from entering Israel for almost two years.

That means weddings, pregnancies, births, circumcisions, funerals, and other meaningful events have been off-limits to non-Israeli citizens whose children, siblings, or parents live in Israel.

During the brief periods without blanket bans on foreigners, potential visitors were forced to contend with Sisyphean bureaucracy and rules that changed from day to day, which essentially made planning a trip to the Jewish State unfeasible.

For those who didn’t want to risk spending thousands of dollars on airfare, only to be told days or hours before take-off that Israel’s policies on admitting tourists had changed, flying to Israel was out of the question.

At one point, the Israeli government implemented a program which allowed exceptions to the tourist ban for first-degree relatives of Israeli citizens. But the program was, in large part, a failure.

Think an ever-expanding list of forms that needed to be filed by the Israeli citizen, some of which were illogical and contradictory; quarantine mandates for visitors regardless of vaccination or recovery status, which were at one point literally instated overnight with no prior warning; abruptly banning visitors from particular countries, while flights from said countries were en route to the Jewish State, then unceremoniously refusing passengers entry after they’d landed in Israel, and so on.

That’s not to mention the utter devastation caused to Israel’s tourism industry, an issue which is worthy of its own article.

The disaster of disconnection

But beyond the emotional strain caused by locking Jews out of Israel, these maximally restrictive policies have the potential to create a long-term disaster – a serious disconnection between Jewish communities abroad and Israel.

The Jewish State has made it clear that it does not care about facilitating entry for non-Israeli Jews, even those with close relatives in Israel, and Jews abroad are taking note. This is especially true when people without Jewish roots or any connection to Israel, such as Miss Universe contestants and judo tournament competitors, are warmly welcomed into the country. These strategic decisions by the Israeli government do not bode well for the future of Diaspora-Israel relations.

When Jews from across the world come to Israel to study in yeshiva, spend a semester abroad during their university years, volunteer on a kibbutz, or simply enjoy a few weeks in Tel Aviv soaking up the sun, the bond between Israel and the diaspora is strengthened. That is the reason why the Birthright Israel and MASA programs were created – to foster a deep sense of connection and unity between Jewish communities abroad and the State of Israel.

This relationship is one of Israel’s most valuable resources, as Diaspora Jews generously donate billions of dollars each year to the state, defend Israel on their college and university campuses, fight against BDS legislation, and even make Aliyah to Israel. It is a relationship which is critical for Israel. It must be constantly nurtured, and never taken for granted.

Too little, too late?

Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai tentatively acknowledged the damage being caused by the Israeli government’s policies on Sunday at the Israeli American Committee conference in Florida.

He admitted to the Times of Israel that “it is damaging [ties]. I know it is, and it hurts me dearly because I very much want the relationship to continue,” but added later that there was no timeline for when the ban would be lifted.

In response to the widespread backlash around hosting Miss Universe while families of Israeli citizens remain locked out of the country, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked decided to throw new immigrants a bone. She announced that she’d immediately issue a directive allowing the parents of pregnant Israeli women to enter the country shortly before they give birth.

Not a pregnant woman? You’re out of luck.

The current status quo – harsh restrictions with the occasional goodwill gesture from the government – is unacceptable. The Jewish State needs to adopt rational policies around admitting tourists; otherwise, it will cause irreparable damage to its relationship with Diaspora Jewry.

Besides the hardships facing Diaspora Jews who are unable to visit their Israeli relatives, not allowing Jews without family in Israel – as well as non-Jewish tourists – into the country poses huge risks.

As Israeli leaders bemoan a waning interest in Israel among Jewish youth abroad and cooling ties with Diaspora communities, the country must turn inwards and examine the root causes of the disconnect.

While politicians touted the Western Wall mixed-gender prayer space compromise (now likely on hold forever) as the ultimate olive branch from Israel to Jewish communities abroad, they are failing to address the real crisis at hand.

Currently, Jews who immigrated to Israel (and their families) are paying the price for these policies that lock Jews out of Israel. In the future, will Israel be prepared to deal with the consequences?