Diaspora relations

Visa-free travel for Israelis removes barrier for ‘peoplehood’ programs

Organizations and Israeli participants will have one less logistical obstacle in visiting the U.S.; high ticket costs still a factor though

Israel’s entry into the United States’ Visa Waiver Program removes a significant barrier for Jewish groups involved in programs that bring Israelis to the U.S., allowing for cheaper, easier and greater exchanges.

Last week, the U.S. government announced that Israel had fulfilled the requirements necessary to enter the program, which allows for visa-free travel to the U.S. by Israeli citizens, beginning Nov. 30. Until now, Israelis have had to pay nearly $200 for a visa and endure a time-consuming application process, provided they were able to get appointments to do so — no small feat in the post-pandemic era. To get around this, some Israelis turn to “machers,” who can help get you an emergency appointment, for a price.

Israel’s inclusion in the program — it is the 41st country to join — is bound to have major ramifications on tourism to the U.S. (Israelis are famously full of wanderlust), as well as for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in the United States with family in Israel.

“You won’t find an Israeli-American family that doesn’t have a visa story, about a missed simcha [celebration] or some crisis,” said Scott Lasensky, a senior policy adviser on Israel to the Obama administration and a lecturer on Israel at the University of Maryland, who has written about and advocated for Israel’s entry to the Visa Waiver Program.

Lasensky, senior adviser to Enter: The Jewish Peoplehood Alliance, said he hoped that because of Israel’s inclusion in the program, more Israelis would come to the U.S. — even just as tourists — instead of other popular destinations.

“As a ‘Jewish peoplehood’ person, I would like them — when it’s a decision between Thailand and the U.S. — I’d like them to come to the U.S.,” Lasensky said. “They may stumble into Central Synagogue while they’re walking in Manhattan. They may meet American Jewish relatives.”

But in addition to these more personal areas, the visa waiver will directly simplify the process for Israelis participating in short-term exchange programs in the U.S., such as Israeli teenagers attending Jewish summer camps or participating in the Maccabi Games, Israeli experts visiting American Jewish communities to give lectures and Israeli leaders meeting their American counterparts.

This is an area that is particularly ripe for development. A 2018 study by the Jerusalem-based Sapir Center for Jewish Education and Culture of “mifgash” programs, in which Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews encounter one another, found that only 18% of participants in these programs are Israeli, while 82% are from the Diaspora. The vast majority of these programs also take place in Israel — Birthright, gap-year programs, etc. — while a far smaller percentage take place outside of Israel, primarily shlichim (emissaries) traveling to summer camps or Jewish communities. While some of this is for conceptual reasons, at least some portion is due to the logistical challenges of bringing Israelis to the U.S.

Shlomit Mali, the CEO of AMI – the National Alliance Strengthening Israelis’ Connection to World Jewry, said her organization, which regularly sends delegations of Israelis to the U.S. to learn about the Jewish community, had only allowed Israelis who already had a visa to travel to the U.S. to take part in its programs in order to avoid the frustration.

“Having a visa was a condition to participate,” said Mali, whose organization is jointly funded by the Israeli government and private philanthropy, primarily the Maimonides Fund and the William Davidson Foundation. “It was complicated and difficult so we decided that we won’t deal with it.”

Speaking of her own personal experience, Mali said it had taken her 10 months to obtain a U.S. visa.

“We announce our trips three months in advance. If you didn’t already have a visa, you couldn’t get one in time,” she said. Mali said that she knew of people who either used “unofficial, roundabout” methods to get a visa or who simply could not apply because of difficulties obtaining one.

“But now that it’s no longer a condition, it will make things much easier,” she said.

Mali said the organization is pushing back a planned delegation by Israel Defense Forces officers to the U.S. until after Israel formally enters the program in order to remove the visa condition for applicants.

She said that while the removal of the visa requirement made things significantly easier for the organization in terms of recruitment, Mali said it was too early to tell how this change would affect things like ticket prices. The U.S. is already the top “long-distance destination for Israeli travelers,” according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and Israel’s inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program “is expected to significantly increase the number of Israeli travelers to the U.S.”

That may send ticket prices soaring as demand increases, or airlines — looking to compete for a newly expanded market — may keep the prices low.

Doron Krakow, CEO of the JCC Association of North America said the organization “will benefit in myriad ways” from Israel’s entry to the program.

“[It will allow] for greater engagement of JCC partner communities in Israel. It will facilitate an increased flow of speakers and program partners as well,” Krakow said in an email to eJP. “In every program area and every category of our work, especially the JCC Maccabi Games, we see greater opportunity and greater impact.”

Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, told eJP that “more and more camps have been interested in having Israeli campers in addition to the shlichim.”

Indeed, this summer, hundreds of Israeli teenagers traveled to the U.S. to attend Jewish summer camps. While many of them were dual citizens — and thus did not require visas — the rest would have needed to obtain a B-2 visitor visa.

“If something makes it easier for an Israeli camper to come, that’s great,” Fingerman said.

At the same time, Fingerman said that, for the most part, while the visa issue is a nuisance, it is not the primary obstacle preventing more Israeli teens from attending American summer camps.

“That’s probably not the biggest hurdle. The biggest hurdle is the cost of the flight,” Fingerman said. “There are some camps that have subsidies, but a higher-income Israeli is the only one that’s going to be able to come.”

More speculatively, Fingerman said Israel’s entry to the Visa Waiver Program was likely to make it easier for Israelis to obtain other types of visas as well, including J-1 exchange visitor visas, which are of the most interest to his organization as it is these that Israeli shlichim require.