In August 2020, despite global lockdowns, travel restrictions, and the rampant spread of COVID-19, I had the unique opportunity to take a gap year and study at a yeshiva, a program for post-high school students to pursue Judaic studies in Israel.
At the time, few were so fortunate. I was one of just 21,000 international students that were granted special permission to enter Israel. A country that, in normal times, eagerly opens its door to immigrants and visitors became one of the world’s most inaccessible due to its restrictive border policies.
When I arrived, fresh off the 20-hour-long plane trek, I felt the thrill of adventure mixed with a fear of the unfamiliar. As we walked through the arrival hall at Ben Gurion Airport, I realized that I had never felt this kind of freedom before. We had the entire country at our fingertips with so much to see, explore, and experience.
My curiosity to explore would have to be put on hold — at least for the time being. Upon arriving on campus in Beit Shemesh, all visitors from so-called “red countries,” including the United States and United Kingdom, had to complete a mandatory, 14-day quarantine.
Even after, strict nationwide lockdowns meant we had to stay local in Beit Shemesh. This, however, allowed us to bond and create an invaluable sense of community.
In mid-December, I remember the yeshiva’s administration telling us that we would be granted a short break during Hanukkah, during which we could leave the Beit Shemesh area and explore the rest of the country. “Going out,” as we put it, was a revolutionary moment in the year.
To celebrate, on the 7th night of Hanukkah, myself and some of my friends chose to spend a night in Jerusalem. We had a wonderful time on that windy and rainy evening, meeting up with friends at other programs and enjoying the city’s spectacular sufganiot, or jelly donuts.
That time, however, we didn’t hear much English being spoken at the Western Wall. Tourist groups seemed absent from the Old City, and the Jewish Quarter wasn’t shoulder-to-shoulder with foot traffic.
In a normal year, we were told, none of that would be the case. The streets of Jerusalem would be flowing with visitors — not just rainwater — during the Hanukkah festival.
As the year went on and winter morphed into spring, it became clearer that there would be no family visits during Passover. Soon after, we realized that they might not happen the whole year. Unfortunately, but as we came to expect, they didn’t. The rest of the diaspora Jewry would have to keep waiting.
In the end, it would be more than 18 months until Israel announced, in November 2021, that it would reopen its doors to vaccinated tourists. Upon learning this, now, as a freshman here at UCLA, I appreciated how truly lucky I was to have spent time in Israel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also upon learning this, I started to reevaluate Israel’s restrictions in the first place. I was struggling to understand how a country like Israel, a safe haven for Jews and persecuted people alike, could enact these restrictive border measures. Why was I so fortunate, but others no so?
As I thought more about the dilemma, I realized just how layered the situation is. There are so many competing values, interests and responsibilities that play into Israel’s ultimate policy decisions. I have realized that, while Israel locked its doors, it surely did not turn its back.
Israel’s first priority has always been keeping its citizens safe. Closing the borders certainly did reduce the spread of COVID-19, saving lives and helping ease the burden on Israeli health care workers.
This, of course, came at the expense of Israel’s tourism industry and the livelihoods of Israeli workers in the industry.
Then, we have to consider the tourists themselves. The relatives, schools, youth and advocacy groups, and all the organizations that view the State of Israel as central to their missions. It was not an easy year at all to experience Israel.
What about the diaspora Jews, mulling over the transcontinental, life-changing Aliyah, moving to Israel? Despite logistical challenges, Jews in the Diaspora’s interest in making Aliyah soared during the pandemic. Few were granted entry.
I grappled with this predicament. Eventually, I found the answer reflecting on my experience in Israel. It seems like a paradox, but by closing its borders, I realized that Israel made a critical sacrifice to put the safety of its people first.
Founded on, defended and sustained by a strong sense of community, Israel took on relatively extreme measures to fight the virus. The point, however, is that they would only be temporary.
In March 2020, the Israeli government decided that, with only a few exceptions, all foreign nationals would be prohibited from entering. And, in a bid to prevent COVID variants from spreading to Israel, the policy would remain enforced through the summer of 2021, after my Israel experience had ended.
In the end, Israel did what it needed to meet the moment. The isolation, long-distance relationships, closures, and economic hardships–none of it was easy. But Israelis actually came together as a community to beat COVID-19 and enjoy brighter times ahead.
These values of collective responsibility and sacrifice forge strong communities. As we move forward and begin a new phase of the pandemic recovery, we should take these lessons to heart, appreciating how Israel’s border policies have, in fact, made Diaspora Jewry better off.
I am thrilled that Israel has begun to reopen its borders to visitors. Let the reunions begin.