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Exceptions for ‘Jewish tourism’ rankle US Christians blocked from Israel at Christmas

(RNS) — There will likely be no U.S. church choirs singing carols in Bethlehem’s Manger Sq. to mark Jesus’ start this 12 months at Christmas.

In late November, Israel imposed a ban on all incoming journey from the U.S. simply because the omicron variant of the coronavirus was detected.

Starting Tuesday (Dec. 21), Israelis could not journey to the U.S., both.

However there was one exception to the November-decreed lockdown: Birthright Israel delegations and related Jewish journey applications had been exempted. As late as Monday, 160 contributors in Birthright’s free 10-day journeys for younger American Jews landed at Ben-Gurion Worldwide Airport exterior Tel Aviv. No extra Birthright vacationers will likely be allowed in for now.

The exception for “Jewish tourism,” which Israeli Inside Minister Ayelet Shaked authorized, drew outrage from Christian teams that had deliberate and paid for pilgrimages to the Holy Land at Christmas.

“I’m glad the Jewish teams are getting in, however be constant throughout the board,” mentioned Frank Cox, pastor of North Metro Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. “There are different teams that need to expertise Israel simply because the Jewish folks would.”


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Cox was scheduled to take 40 of his church members to Israel and Jordan to go to the locations the place Jesus walked and preached. The journey had initially been scheduled two years in the past. Final 12 months it was canceled because of the pandemic. This 12 months, all 40 members had meticulously complied with Israel’s strict guidelines: vaccinations, a booster and three COVID assessments (one earlier than the flight and two after arrival).

However in late November, Cox, and a whole lot of pastors and church members, had been notified their journey was canceled. For some pastors, the notification got here on the final minute. Jordan Easley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Cleveland, Tennessee, had already checked his luggage for his go to to Israel together with 100 church members, when a Delta Air Strains consultant advised him Israel has simply closed its borders.

“Our refrain was going to sing Christmas carols as a visitor of the mayor of Bethlehem,” mentioned Easley. “It was presupposed to be a televised occasion.”

All international residents had been banned from coming into Israel starting Nov. 28. Amid a surge of omicron circumstances, Israel additionally categorised america, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Canada, Switzerland and Turkey as “pink” states and positioned them beneath a journey ban on Monday.

As of earlier this week, Israel had 1,306 new COVID-19 circumstances, the very best every day caseload in two months. Of these about 350 had been recognized as omicron circumstances. On Monday, Israel recorded its first omicron-related death.

Many American Jews, particularly these with youngsters or shut relations in Israel, additionally protested the journey ban.

Dov Lipman, founding father of Yad L’Olim, a company that has been preventing for the precise of relations of Israeli immigrants to go to Israel, acknowledged the frustration confronted by anybody being denied entry to the nation.

“Just lately, a couple of teams have been allowed in, however these have been the exception, not the rule,” Lipman mentioned, referring to a handful of Jewish Birthright teams, sports activities teams and contestants of the Miss Universe pageant, which was held within the seaside resort of Eilat on Dec. 12.

In the meantime, solely first-degree relations of Israeli immigrants have been allowed entry, and just for life-cycle occasions comparable to weddings and births.

The exceptions for the Jewish tour teams at Christmas, one of many prime vacationer instances for Christian pilgrims, had been seen by some as insensitive, if not discriminatory.

“In case you’re actually attempting to cease the unfold, it doesn’t matter if you happen to’re Jewish or Christian,” mentioned Brad Brown, a journey agent for Signature Tours in Duluth, Georgia, that books pilgrimage excursions for church teams. “It appears unhealthy when American Christians, and I’m assuming Muslims, can’t get in.”

The Jewish tourism exception authorized by Shaked, a conservative firebrand who helps the annexation of the West Financial institution and enlargement of settlements there and opposes an impartial Palestinian state, was criticized inside Israel, too.

Shaked’s Ministry of the Inside didn’t reply to a request for an interview.

The journey ban has hit the Palestinian financial system onerous, particularly in vacationer locations comparable to Bethlehem.

“A really massive proportion of Bethlehem-area residents depend on tourism for his or her livelihoods,” mentioned Khadar Abu Jeries, supervisor of the Peace Café, on Manger Sq. in Bethlehem.

Khalil Awad, the proprietor of the Previous Cave Memento store in Bethlehem, is one in all them. His 40-year-old store, which reopened in November after closing in 2020, helps 4 households, he mentioned.

“We had hoped and prayed folks would come for Christmas,” Awad mentioned. “Now our hopes are dashed.”

The closure, in fact, affected the wallets of the U.S. vacationers, too. Brown mentioned he was capable of refund a lot of the cash church teams had put up for the journey. However some pastors mentioned many church households had been instantly confronted with planning a vacation stateside after they thought they’d be overseas.

Brown mentioned solely about half as many individuals have signed on for a rescheduled journey subsequent 12 months.

“These are journeys of a lifetime for folks,” he mentioned. “They need to go to Jerusalem earlier than they die. A few of these folks by no means journey internationally in any respect. They could by no means have been exterior Oklahoma, however they’ll go to Israel.”

Yonat Shimron reported from the U.S.; Michele Chabin from Israel.


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