The Jerusalem Post
The COVID crisis shows immigrants the way forward in getting their voices heard
There is no question that the coronavirus pandemic has, like in other countries, exerted severe stresses on much of society.
Unemployment skyrocketed with some 1,000,000 people, 22% of the workforce, out of work at the height of the crisis, while 100,000 businesses have collapsed during the pandemic.
The elderly have been completely cut off from their families and left to languish in old age homes, where outbreaks of the disease have killed hundreds.
Families with young children have had to entertain their little ones for weeks on end during lockdowns while trying to work full-time jobs at the same time, and those with older children have had to partially homeschool their kids while trying to prevent them from going stir-crazy.
Domestic abuse has increased severely, and mental health problems have spiked dramatically across all sectors and segments of society because of these and other stresses related to the pandemic.
Many olim, immigrants to Israel, have faced the same pressures and difficulties as native-born Israelis, but have also had to deal with an additional struggle: being cut off from their families living abroad.
For over a year, most immigrants have been unable to see their parents, adult children, brothers and sisters whom they left behind when they made aliyah to the Jewish state, assuming that a visit to or from their close relatives was a relatively simple affair.
While other Israelis were able to meet their close family outdoors during the lockdowns and even indoors during the reopenings, many immigrants have been entirely cut off from their immediate family for a longer period than they might ever have imagined.
Even when regulations were enacted during the first 10 months of the crisis to allow family members in for special events, the bureaucrats in charge of the application process were so unaccommodating, and the bureaucracy required was so opaque and onerous, that many applicants for entry were rejected despite having the right to enter.
And during the last three months of the crisis, the government made entry into Israel all but impossible, even for citizens for several weeks.
Whereas the non-Israeli relatives of olim were able to enter the country for special reasons such as family celebrations, weddings, funerals and other life-cycle events during much of the pandemic, restrictions imposed by the government since the end of January made it impossible to visit even for those special occasions.
This has led to heartbreak for some families over the last three months, with parents of pregnant women unable to be with their daughters and see their new grandchildren; engaged couples forced to choose between having a wedding with their friends present but without their parents, or vice versa; and the sick unable to have their relatives at their side.
Coming on the back of the pandemic and 10 months of not seeing their families for routine visits, this emotional distress has stirred something among the immigrant population.
Social media have been full of angry immigrants fuming over their treatment by the government, which seemingly did not think about the emotional needs of the olim it encouraged to move to the Jewish state.
MKs and activists lobbied government officials, at first to assist individuals with critical cases, but eventually on a larger scale to effect change to the stringent government restrictions on the entry of the relatives of immigrants in general.
Eventually this pressure led to an easing of these policies in recent days.
MICHAL COTLER-WUNSH, who served as an MK throughout the entire coronavirus crisis but who did not stand for reelection in the most recent election, was one of the principal MKs helping resolve specific problems for olim and pushing to change the government’s policies more broadly.
She says the government failed to understand until just recently what the implications of its restrictions were on the lives of immigrants.
Cotler-Wunsh says that as the crisis continued, the frustration of olim developed into anger over “a complete lack of understanding” of what those implications were on the personal lives of immigrants anxious to see their loved ones.
But, she insists, it was a “constructive anger” which mobilized her and others into seeking change and brought about a movement that had an effect on the direction of events.
Rabbi Dov Lipman, a former MK, who became one of the
primary activists helping both olim enter the country when even citizens were not able to get into Israel, and family members of immigrants gain entry permits, has keenly felt that frustration and disappointment.
Lipman says he has been contacted by, and assisted, thousands of people seeking help in various ways in trying to enter the country during the course of the COVID19 pandemic, and is acutely aware of the intense frustration olim have experienced during this time.
“The government totally failed to take into account olim during this crisis. I don’t believe that the well-being, the emotions, or the needs of olim were even thought about it during this whole time,” he says.
Lipman says he understands that the concerns and requirements of immigrants could not trump all other considerations, but nevertheless asserts that those concerns did not play any part in the decision-making process.
And even when policies were changed, including changes made through the Knesset’s
Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee in which Cotler-Wunsh was active, Lipman says the implementation was not good enough, noting that consulates abroad were told to adopt guidelines and regulations without a clear framework or criteria as to how to do so.
“This tortured olim and their families who were trying desperately to follow the guidelines and get into Israel,” says Lipman, who says he frequently had to plead with government officials over the phone to approve entry permits for people about to embark on a plane.
Furthermore, he added, much of the power over policy itself as well as entry permit approvals lies in the hands of lower-level officials and bureaucrats who have no understanding or empathy at all with immigrants and their requirements, something that exacerbated the problem.
Lipman is certain that the campaigning conducted by him, Cotler-Wunsh and others, as well as exposure of the problem in the media, helped bring about changes in the policies regarding the entry of
family members of olim.
Two weeks ago, after a spate of extremely difficult cases, the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry, which has authority over who can enter the country, finally made provision for all vaccinated first-degree relatives of any Israeli citizen to enter the country for any reason.
Lipman says that he, Cotler-Wunsh, Nefesh B’Nefesh, and other individuals and groups “bombarded” relevant ministers with appeals and requests over these issues, made them aware of the problem and pressured them not only to solve specific cases but to change policy more broadly.
“When you make noise, it gets things done,” he says.
This is something that Cotler-Wunsh wholeheartedly agrees with.
“It is really high time that we lean in and take our rightful place around the table,” she says.
“Every olah and oleh fulfills the vision and values of the Zionist vision; it is an aliyah of choice, an opting in.
“There is tremendous potential to harness this, and for us
to demand our rightful place around the policy-making table.”
Cotler-Wunsh says, however, that she believes the goal of increasing the voice of immigrants is important not only for addressing the concerns of immigrants themselves but to advance Israel more broadly through the values and world perspective that immigrants from democratic countries bring to Israel.
“I very much hope that people begin to understand that the lack of diversity of viewpoints in the decision-making process hurts everyone, immigrants and native-born Israelis alike,” she says.
And Lipman also agrees that one thing the COVID19 crisis has shown is that English-speaking immigrants can be effective in getting their voices heard, but that there is a need to be more organized and work in a more structured fashion in order to do so.
“We need organized and concerted activism for the immigrant lobby going forward, and this is something that could have a tremendous impact.”