Photo Credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90
An Israir flight attendant in full protective gear during an Israir flight, May 13, 2020.

In recent days India-Israel bilateral relations have been further strengthened by the countries’ collaborative effort to counter the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, a special flight carrying a group of doctoral and postdoctoral students from India landed at Ben Gurion Airport, proving that academic relations are thriving, as well.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, at the request of the Council for Higher Education and its Planning and Budgeting Committee Chairman Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, approved the entry of foreign students interested in studying at Israeli universities, including doctoral and postdoctoral students who will be integrated into laboratories eager to absorb international researchers. Following Deri’s approval, a group of 100 students from India, including students set to continue and begin their study and research at Bar-Ilan University, were unable to find a flight to Israel.

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At a recent meeting of a forum of university vice presidents, participants discussed the difficulty they’ve encountered in bringing international doctoral students to Israel as the result of a shortage of flights due to the coronavirus. Bar-Ilan University International School Director Ofer Dahan, a former Jewish Agency official who organized numerous special flights to Israel, stepped in to help. Dahan contacted Israeli air carrier Israir and asked if they would operate a flight from Mumbai to Israel to allow the students to reach the laboratories that await them.

On Tuesday morning the students landed in Israel and will remain in quarantine for two weeks in dormitories of various universities. Following quarantine they will be integrated into research universities, including laboratories conducting research on the coronavirus.

Dr. Sumit Majumdar started a postdoc fellowship in November 2019 in Prof. Daniel Nessim’s lab at Bar-Ilan’s Department of Chemistry. When he returned to India for a visit in March, he became stuck there due to lockdown. “There was a special flight to Israel in June, but I couldn’t board that flight due to state lockdown, and my village was under red zone,” he said.

Like Majumdar, Dr. Kavita Sharma also found herself stuck in her New Delhi home with no way to return to Israel. The 30-year-old, who began a postdoc last year in the lab of Prof. Avi Zadok, of the Faculty of Engineering, had been trying to secure a flight since May.

Abhishek Puthenveetil arrived in Israel for the first time Tuesday morning. He is set to begin his doctorate at the University’s Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences, and conducting research on cancer immunotherapy in the lab of Prof. Mira Barda-Saad. The 24-year-old who hails from southern India, expects to be here for four years.

“Universities in India are important partners in Israeli research,” said Bar-Ilan University President Prof. Arie Zaban. “Research universities yearn for these students because of their specialization in disciplines that contribute to the advancement of Israeli research. This is of crucial importance, particularly nowadays when knowledge sharing takes place mainly through Zoom. Doctoral students from India are talented and hardworking, and I am proud that we were able to bring them here during these very challenging times for higher education and the State of Israel.”

Gil Stav, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Israir Group: “This is the first time in the company’s history that Israir has operated flights to India and special preparation was required. The plane that brought the student delegation to Israel is the same one that left Tel Aviv bound for Mumbai with a delegation of officials from the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We are privileged to take part in Israel’s national efforts to address the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.”

Since the beginning of the corona crisis, Israir has carried out complex missions and conducted special flights, and brought Israeli citizens and immigrants to Israel from various places around the world.

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