As we approach the third year of the pandemic, the strain it has caused in relations between the Jewish state and global Jewry is growing. It was inevitable that the era of travel restrictions and quarantines would create distance between Israel and Jews who are not Israeli citizens due to the lack of direct contact between the two groups. The inability of Diaspora Jews to travel to Israel as freely and easily as they have become accustomed to doing has created a rift between Israel and world Jewry that is not about policy differences or clashing worldviews, but rather about literal distance.
While this general dynamic has been a regular feature of the COVID era, much of the recent specific angst is centered around the way in which Israel’s entry requirements that are meant to keep out COVID and are targeted at foreigners are impacting Israelis themselves. Some of the most voluble sources of discontent are Israeli olim (immigrants) and their Diaspora relatives, who have largely been prevented from seeing each other, celebrating family births, mourning family deaths, and maintaining the familial closeness across thousands of miles that has become de rigueur in the era of cheap and abundant air travel. Many new Israelis feel abandoned by their government, and many Diaspora Jews feel that they have been cut off from their loved ones in an unnecessary or arbitrary fashion.
The focus on this group is understandable. They are the ones who are most acutely impacted by Israeli policies that have made it very difficult—and during some periods, including the last part of 2021, impossible—for non-Israeli Jews to enter the country, and in this respect they are disproportionately suffering from the COVID-imposed divide between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews. But this group of Israelis and, more saliently, non-Israeli Jews is also the one over which there should be the least long-term concern. Israeli citizens are not going to be permanently alienated from or apathetic about their own country, no matter how upset they are about their government’s COVID policies. And the set of Diaspora Jews that have parents, children, grandchildren, and siblings in Israel are also not going to forswear contacts with the Jewish state once the pandemic is over and Israel’s entry policies have returned to the status quo ante. As hurt and betrayed as this group of Diaspora Jews feels right now, they will also be the ones who return most quickly and most frequently to Israel as soon as they can. This is not a group of Jews that Israel needs to worry about.
The group of Jews to worry about for those who are concerned about the long-term health of the Israel-Diaspora relationship is everyone else. While there is not as much vocal bitterness emanating from North American Jews who have not suffered from being apart from Israeli olehrelatives, the pandemic-imposed distance from Israel risks becoming a new apathy-driven equilibrium. The high barrier to going to Israel over the past two years even when the border was open—from vaccination status to PCR tests to quarantines to special status exemptions—has dissuaded many from even trying. This month marks two years since I have been to Israel, which has felt like an abnormal jolt to my system given my normal routine of going every few months for a decade. But for the overwhelming majority of North American Jews, missing a once-a-decade family vacation or not going on a Birthright trip is not going to engender a strong feeling of missing something. And the more routine it becomes to think of Israel as a place where Diaspora Jews cannot go, the more routine it will become to think of Israel as a place where Diaspora Jews need not go even when they can.
Despite the enormous energy and concern directed toward combating anti-Zionism, it is hard to envision a near-term future in which anti-Zionism consumes North American Jewry. The real danger is not opposition to Israel, but apathy toward Israel. If Israel becomes a place that Diaspora Jews do not experience firsthand, it will also become less important to their identity. Being the preeminent military power in the Middle East with a celebrated tech-driven economy renders Israel less of a rallying cry from a solidarity perspective, which was not the case a generation ago, and it makes actual contact with Israel and Israelis more critical rather than less for a strong relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The Jews who are going to lose the most from Israel’s COVID entry policies are the ones who right now realize it and express it the least.
This is not meant to be an exercise in assigning blame. Every country in the world has adopted emergency restrictions and regulations during the pandemic, and resulting unintended consequences are inevitable. In Israel’s case, however, it would be helpful for there to be more attention paid not only to how this all impacts Israelis and the most connected group of non-Israelis, but to how it impacts the bulk of Diaspora Jews. Israel’s obligations to world Jewry are often framed as rescuing Jews who are in danger from antisemitism or oppression, but the focus on obligations and safety necessarily creates a narrow aperture. Israel may not have an obligation to American Jewish college students who want a free trip or to American Jewish families on summer vacation, but there are costs to taking these relationships for granted.
The exasperation of families of olim and lone soldiers is a short-term crisis that will quickly dissipate once the conditions of the pandemic are gone. The potential apathetic distancing of many other Diaspora Jews is a more serious long-term problem that will linger well past COVID itself. It is important to listen to the voices of those who are desperate to enter Israel right now, but it is equally important to listen to the silence of those who are getting used to not even thinking about whether they can enter Israel.