Israel grapples with rare wave of non-Jewish refugees from Ukraine

About 16,000 Ukrainian refugees have already arrived in Israel, but two-thirds of them do not have Jewish roots. While most of the 3.7 million Ukrainians who have fled the war are on their way to European neighbors, the influx has shaken Israel, which has a population of 9.3 million.

Some Israeli officials fear that an uncontrolled wave of refugees could undermine the country’s Jewish majority. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics said in 2021 that 74% of Israel’s population identify as Jews and 21% are Arabs. Another 5% are largely non-Arab Christians, most of whom were among or born to the nearly one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel in the 1990s.

On March 8, Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced a first-ever policy to limit non-Jewish refugees from Ukraine to 5,000, while allowing another 20,000 Ukrainians living in Israel with virtually no legal status before the war to remain hostile.

Five days later, Shaked changed course after being condemned by centrist and left-wing members of her own government. The issue has similarly divided the country largely along political lines, according to opinion polls, where left-wing Israelis support a more open policy to absorb non-Jewish refugees. The revised policy keeps the non-Jewish refugee quota at 5,000 but allows an unlimited number of Ukrainians with families in Israel to stay until hostilities cease. It also requires Ukrainians to apply for approval from Israel before boarding a plane to Tel Aviv.

Israel’s current quota for Ukrainians entering the country and the requirement for them to obtain prior approval while abroad are in practice repealed an visa waiver agreement that Israel has with Ukraine. The nearby United Arab Emirates took a similar step in early March before retreating rapidly.

On March 23, Israeli officials said they were approaching the quota, with 4,000 non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees already here.

Shaked has said that her policy is intended to prioritize Ukrainians with Jewish roots who are entitled to citizenship.

“We must remember that the state of Israel is a national homeland for the Jewish people,” Shaked said. She has claimed that Israel is expected to receive and naturalize more Ukrainian refugees in proportion to the size of the population. any other country not bordering Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has criticized Israel’s refugee policy in a Zoom-worthy speech to Israeli lawmakers. “Why is there no Israeli aid or even entry clearance,” he said.

Mr. Zelensky, a Jew, compared Ukrainians fleeing the war to Jews who escaped Nazi persecution during the Holocaust. The specific appeal provoked outrage from a largely Jewish audience, who considered the comparison to be incorrect and unnecessary.

Israel’s Supreme Court has given the government until Monday to review the current policy before deciding whether the quota of Ukrainian refugees and the requirement for entry clearance from abroad is legal. The petition is supported by the Ukrainian Embassy in Tel Aviv. Israeli officials have claimed that the visa waiver program is for tourist purposes, while those fleeing war are more likely to stay in the country.

“We showed that the law relates to all visitors from Ukraine and for any purpose, not just tourism, and the Supreme Court suggested that this is really how they see it,” said Tomer Warsha, who filed the petition challenging the current refugee policy.

Israel has sought to balance its close relations with the United States and Europe with diplomatic and security ties that it has developed with Moscow in recent years.

Israel’s position is that it opposes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but can only provide humanitarian – not military – assistance to maintain its ties with Russia. Moscow has forces in Syria, where Israel has carried out a long air campaign against Iranian-backed militants. Israel has a line of conflict of communication with Russia to prevent the possibility of unintentional clashes across the Syrian sky. Israel has established a field hospital in Ukraine and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is one of a handful of heads of state mediating between Kyiv and Moscow.

Ukrainian officials say some non-Jewish refugees have been treated badly when trying to enter the country, in contrast to the relatively easy process for refugees with Jewish roots.

Yulia Tomin, a 25-year-old refugee who fled her hometown of Ivano-Frankivsk with her two young children and grandmother, is not Jewish but has Israeli relatives. She said she slept on the floor at the airport on March 8-11 while breastfeeding her 1-month-old son and trying to take care of her 4-year-old daughter. She was transferred to a hotel and planned for deportation before an immigration lawyer took up her case and won.

Others were not so lucky. Two of the women at Tomin’s hotel were deported earlier this month.

“I’m not scared here,” said Tomin. “I fear for what will happen in Ukraine.”

The Israeli immigration authority has not responded to a response for comment on Tomin’s case.

In parliamentary hearings, Israeli officials said they were surprised by the rapid accumulation of refugees at the airport when the war in Ukraine began. They have since opened facilities at the airport with food and childcare available and have moved on to consider refugee applications to stay in Israel from abroad to reduce deportations.

Since February 25, 289 Ukrainians have been denied entry to Israel by more than 16,000 who have arrived.

Many Jewish refugees have found it easier and their applications for citizenship are now being tracked quickly. Psychiatrist Ilya Tregubov, 40, fled Dnipro with her wife and teenage daughter after rockets began falling. In Lviv, he met with officials of Israel’s semi-state Jewish bureau, who verified their Jewish heritage and helped them emigrate to Israel. Mr Tregubov said he and his family are now Israeli citizens, living with their cousin in central Israel and working with their Hebrews.

“It’s a feeling I’ve had all my life. If it gets really bad, I move to Israel. As a Jew, you have that idea deep in your consciousness. But you do not really imagine that it will happen,” he said.

Israeli officials say they expect between 50,000 and 100,000 Jews this year to immigrate from countries that were once part of the former Soviet Union, through a law that allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to obtain citizenship. Israeli officials also said that nearly 2,000 Russians had already immigrated to Israel since the war began, and thousands more had submitted immigration requests.

In the seven decades since its founding, Israel has dealt almost exclusively with waves of Jewish immigration, but this time it was forced to carve out an ad hoc policy for non-Jewish refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, says Yohanan Plesner, President of Ukraine . Jerusalem-based think tank Israel Democracy Institute.

Soviet immigrants in the early 1990s were the largest group of non-Jews that Israel has ever accepted, and it also received non-Jewish refugees from Vietnam in the late 1970s. It has generally refused refugees from Syria and other recent conflicts, and Palestinian refugees from Israel’s founding war have largely never been allowed to return.

“Israel did not really handle in the past with great pressure from non-Jews to immigrate to Israel, and therefore never really developed a coherent policy,” he said.

Some Ukrainian refugees are preparing to stay in Israel despite their limbo status.

All of Misiuk and her daughter are among a dozen non-Jewish families who were brought to Israel using the Jerusalem Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum because their families once saved the lives of Jews during World War II.

On Monday, Misiuk said she found a new school for her young daughter. Still, Mrs. Misiuk still does not know if she and her daughter will be allowed to stay in Israel permanently.

“My home is ruined. There is no place to go back to,” she says.

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