By Yonoson Rosenblum | DECEMBER 28, 2021
Why is South Africa's Rabbi Warren Goldstein furious with the Israeli government?
South Africa's Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein is about as mild-mannered a man as one could hope to find. We have known one another for at least 20 years, and I have never seen or heard him angry.
That mild-mannered nature, however, has nothing to do with passivity or a lack of courage. He has from the beginning of his tenure been willing to take unpopular stands when the honor of Torah was threatened. And he has been an innovator par excellence on both the South African and international levels, in furtherance of the injunction of his rav and rosh yeshivah, Rav Azriel Chaim Goldfein ztz"l, at his inauguration as chief rabbi: Adhere to the model of "a litvishe rav, leading your community and addressing its problems."
Those innovations have included both the Community Active Protection (CAP) program that made it possible for South African Jews to remain in their native country without being constantly in fear for their lives, and the international Shabbos Project.
But our conversation last week was the first time I have ever heard him outspokenly angry. And the target was one that he has defended many times: the Israeli government.
"The government has taken leave of its senses," he told me, with respect to Covid-related restrictions on entry to the country of Jews living in chutz l'Aretz. Either it does not understand or it does not care about the impact of its actions on Jews living abroad.
The State of Israel was not formed to be a normal state. It is not just a state of its citizens, but a state of the Jews worldwide. On that basis, Israel called for the support of world Jewry for decades. The unique nature of Israel finds its ultimate expression in the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew in the world who applies for it.
The decision of the Israeli government to apply different standards for entry to Jews from abroad and returning Israeli citizens, in Rabbi Goldstein's view, makes a mockery of the idea that all Jews are stakeholders.
He does not question Israel's right or duty to take such steps as necessary to protect its citizens from Covid. But he points out that the coronavirus does not distinguish between Jews living in Israel and those living abroad: Thus there is no rational basis for applying one set of criteria to Jews seeking entry from the Diaspora and those returning to Israel from abroad.
Both, in his opinion, should be subject to the same vaccination, PCR tests, and quarantine protocols. By failing to apply those standards to Diaspora Jews, Rabbi Goldstein maintains, "The government is saying, 'You are not part of us, we are not part of you, and our borders are locked to you.' It's a moral disgrace...."
That negative message has been conveyed over and over again by the government of Israel. First, in the handling of requests for special exemptions, as detailed in these pages last week by Gedalia Guttentag ("Closed Borders, Closed Ears"). The handling of those requests has been a low priority for the government; those assigned to the task are mostly young, inexperienced, low-level functionaries, without the life experience or sensitivity to appreciate, for instance, the pain experienced by elderly parents and their offspring, when the latter cannot be present as their parents fade. Or that of families unable to celebrate simchahs together — e.g., chasunos, bar mitzvahs, the birth of a child or grandchild.
The Times of Israel headlined a story last week on the committee handling travel exemptions, "As travel exemption requests pile up, panel accused of issuing automatic rejections." That would be consistent with the statement of Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai quoted last week by Guttentag: "We're trying to bring down to zero the number of people who come, so that we don't end up shutting down our economy or schools."
One wonders whether Shai knows that the tourism industry is a vital segment of the Israeli economy. His statement is an example of the "Covid-zero" mentality — the idea that Covid can miraculously be eliminated, with just one more push — that has fueled a great deal of hysteria and collateral damage far greater than that caused by the Omicron variant.
The most scandalous Israeli government action, however, was the treatment of a flight from South Africa, including close friends of the family of Eli Kay, a new immigrant and discharged soldier, who was shot and killed by a terrorist in Jerusalem's Old City. The passengers were forced back onto the plane and flown to other destinations on Shabbos.
Had any other country in the world shown such callous disregard for Jewish religious sensitivities by forcing Jews to desecrate the Sabbath, there would have been a worldwide outcry against the anti-Semitism of the offending government. In this case, the Israeli government knew of the incoming flight at least nine hours in advance, and could have, at the very least, prepared Shabbos accommodations and food for those arriving in Israel on Friday. Any number of organizations would have been eager to provide kosher food for Shabbos and beds at the airport.
Rabbi Goldstein sent a sharp letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett expressing his shock and dismay that the government had compelled Jews to desecrate Shabbos: "[To] force fellow Jews to desecrate Shabbat is a violation of the identity and Jewish values of the state. The manner in which the religious rights of these individuals have been infringed is not something one would expect of any country, and certainly not the Jewish state."
He is still waiting for a reply from the prime minister.
AS REPORTED LAST WEEK, there have been large numbers of requests for exemptions from the rules on entry to Israel, and there are many activists, such as the Chaim V'Chessed organization, involved in pushing those requests. But what has been lacking from the organized Jewish community worldwide, both religious and nonreligious, is a direct attack on the distinction between Israeli citizens and Jews abroad with respect their ability to enter Israel. Where are those other voices pointing out, like Chief Rabbi Goldstein, that as a matter of health policy, the distinction makes little sense?
Admittedly, the principle of non-distinction between Jews and Israeli citizens can be taken too far. No one — or at least not I — would be enthusiastic about giving Jews living in chutz l'Aretz a vote in matters of Israeli security, since they will not bear the consequences of the security decisions made. But in fact, Israel does not give such a vote even to its own citizens living abroad. Being born in Israel or otherwise having Israeli citizenship does not entitle one to an absentee ballot while living abroad.
But what is remarkable is how a government that has made so much of the necessity of healing the Diaspora-Israel rift has done so in such a backwards fashion. It is seems bound and determined to alienate those with the closest ties to Israel — e.g., those who have close relatives in the country, including children, grandchildren, and parents who have recently immigrated or are living here as permanent residents, those who visit repeatedly, those who own apartments or homes in Israel.
While at the same time, it is busy with futile efforts to win the support of those Jews with the most minimal ties to Israel. Who besides a few leaders of the heterodox movements cares about whether there are egalitarian services at the Kosel? Unaffiliated Jews, the fastest growing non-Orthodox cohort, cannot be bothered to pray at home. Why should they care about the forms of prayer in Israel? Nor is the situation that much better among those affiliated with heterodox congregations.
What percentage of unaffiliated Jews have ever visited Israel? Reform Jews? And of those who have visited, how many prayed while here, or bothered to learn of the many places in which they could pray, according to their rites, in Israel?
Do Naftali Bennett or Yair Lapid imagine that changing standards for conversion or kashrus supervision, or an egalitarian platform at the Kosel, will suddenly win more support for Israel's position on the Iranian nuclear program, or even a thoughtful hearing for Israel's concerns?
Only that which strengthens Jewish identity and the connection between all Jews as recipients of the Torah at Sinai will strengthen Diaspora-Israel ties. That should be the concern of Israel's leaders. And that is what the Orthodox leadership should be urging, as Chief Rabbi Goldstein has done.