Exceptions for ‘Jewish tourism’ block American Christians stranded from Israel at Christmas

(RNS) – There will be no American church choirs singing Christmas carols in Bethlehem Manger Square to mark the birth of Jesus this year at Christmas.

At the end of November, Israel imposed a ban on all inbound travel from the United States just as the omicron variant of the coronavirus was detected.

As of Tuesday (December 21), the Israelis cannot travel to the United States either.

But there was one exception to the lockdown decreed in November: Birthright Israel delegations and similar Jewish travel programs were exempt. As of Monday, 160 participants in the free 10-day Birthright trips for young American Jews touched down at Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv. No other Birthright travelers will be allowed in at this time.

The exception for “Jewish tourism,” which Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked endorsed, sparked outrage from Christian groups who had planned and paid for pilgrimages to the Holy Land over Christmas.

“I’m glad Jewish groups are coming in, but be consistent in all areas,” said Frank Cox, pastor of North Metro Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. “There are other groups who want to experience Israel like the Jewish people would. “

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Cox was to take 40 members of his church to Israel and Jordan to visit the places where Jesus walked and preached. The trip was originally planned two years ago. Last year it was canceled due to the pandemic. This year, the 40 members had meticulously followed Israel’s strict rules: vaccinations, a booster and three COVID tests (one before the flight and two after arrival).

But in late November, Cox and hundreds of pastors and church members were told their trip had been canceled. For some pastors, the notification came at the very last minute. Jordan Easley, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Cleveland, Tennessee, had already checked his luggage for his visit to Israel with 100 church members, when a representative from Delta Air Lines told him that Israel had just closed its borders.

“Our choir was going to sing Christmas carols as a guest of the mayor of Bethlehem,” Easley said. “It was supposed to be a televised event.”

All foreign citizens were banned from entering Israel from November 28. Amid a wave of omicron cases, Israel also classified the United States, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Canada, Switzerland and Turkey as of the “red” states and placed them under a travel ban on Monday.

As of the start of this week, Israel had 1,306 new cases of COVID-19, the highest daily number of cases in two months. Of these, around 350 have been identified as cases of omicron. Israel recorded its first omicron-related death on Monday.

Many American Jews, especially those with children or close relatives in Israel, also protested the travel ban.

Dov Lipman, founder of Yad L’Olim, an organization that fights for the right of parents of Israeli immigrants to visit Israel, acknowledged the frustration faced by anyone who is denied entry to the country.

“Recently a few groups have been allowed in, but these have been the exception, not the rule,” said Lipman, referring to a handful of Jewish Birthright groups, sports groups and contestants in the Miss Pageant. Universe, held in the resort town of Eilat on December 12.

During this time, only first-degree relatives of Israeli immigrants have been allowed entry, and only for life cycle events such as weddings and births.

The exceptions for Jewish tour groups at Christmas, one of the most touristic times for Christian pilgrims, were viewed by some as insensitive and even discriminatory.

“If you’re really trying to stop the spread, it doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or Christian,” said Brad Brown, travel agent for Signature Tours in Duluth, Ga., Which reserves pilgrimage tours for religious groups. “It looks bad when American Christians, and I guess Muslims, can’t get in.”

The Jewish tourism exception endorsed by Shaked, a conservative brand who supports annexation of the West Bank and settlement expansion there and opposes an independent Palestinian state, has also been criticized inside. Israel.

Shaked’s Home Office did not respond to a request for an interview.

The travel ban has hit the Palestinian economy hard, especially in tourist destinations such as Bethlehem.

“A very large percentage of the people in the Bethlehem area depend on tourism for their livelihood,” said Khadar Abu Jeries, director of the Peace Café, at Manger Square in Bethlehem.

One of them is Khalil Awad, the owner of the Old Cave Souvenir shop in Bethlehem. His 40-year-old store, which reopened in November after closing in 2020, supports four families, he said.

“We had hoped and prayed that people would come for Christmas,” Awad said. “Now our hopes are dashed. “

The closure, of course, also affected the wallets of American tourists. Brown said he was able to repay most of the money that church groups had put in place for the trip. But some pastors said many church families were suddenly faced with planning a vacation in the United States when they thought they would be overseas.

Brown said only about half of people have signed up for a rescheduled trip next year.

“These are the trips of a lifetime for people,” he said. “They want to go to Jerusalem before they die. Some of these people never travel abroad. They may never have been outside of Oklahoma, but they will go to Israel.

Yonat Shimron reported from the United States; Michèle Chabin from Israel.

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