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

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Around 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 fled the war are heading to neighboring European countries, the influx has rocked Israel, which has a population of 9.3 million.

Some Israeli officials fear an uncontrolled wave of refugees could undermine the country’s Jewish majority. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics said in 2021 that 74% of Israel’s population identified as Jewish and 21% as Arab. 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.

Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked on March 8 announced a first-ever policy aimed at limiting the number of non-Jewish refugees from Ukraine to 5,000 while allowing an additional 20,000 Ukrainians residing in Israel, largely without legal status before the war, to remain during the hostilities.

Five days later, Ms Shaked changed course after being condemned by centrist and left-wing members of her own government. The issue has also divided the country largely along political lines, polls show, with left-leaning Israelis backing a policy more open to absorbing non-Jewish refugees. The revised policy maintains the quota for non-Jewish refugees at 5,000 but allows an unlimited number of Ukrainians with family in Israel to stay until the end of hostilities. It also requires Ukrainians to seek Israel’s approval before being allowed to board a plane to Tel Aviv.

Israel’s current quota for Ukrainians entering the country and the requirement that they receive prior authorization while abroad effectively suspended a visa waiver agreement Israel had with Ukraine. The neighboring United Arab Emirates took a similar step in early March before quickly backtracking.

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

Ms Shaked said her policy was aimed at prioritizing Ukrainians of Jewish descent eligible for citizenship.

“We must remember that the State of Israel is a national homeland of the Jewish people,” Ms. Shaked said. She argued that, relative to the size of its population, Israel should take in and naturalize more Ukrainian refugees than any other country that does not border Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized Israel’s refugee policy in a Zoom-hosted speech to Israeli lawmakers. “Why is Israeli aid, or even entry permits, not available,” he said.

Mr. Zelensky, who is Jewish, compared Ukrainians fleeing the war to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during the Holocaust. This specific call sparked outrage from a predominantly Jewish audience, who deemed the comparison incorrect and unnecessary.

Israel’s Supreme Court has given the government until Monday to review the current policy before deciding whether the quota for Ukrainian refugees and the requirement for permission to enter from abroad are legal. The request to the court is supported by the Ukrainian Embassy in Tel Aviv. Israeli officials have argued that the visa waiver program is for tourism purposes, while those fleeing war would be more likely to stay in the country.

“We have shown that the law applies to any visitor to Ukraine and for any purpose, not just tourism, and the Supreme Court has suggested that this is indeed how it sees it,” said said Tomer Warsha, who filed the petition challenging the current refugee policy.

Israel has sought to balance its close relationship with the United States and Europe with the diplomatic and security ties 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 is waging a long air campaign against Iranian-backed militants. Israel has a deconfliction line of communication with Russia to avoid the possibility of unintended clashes over Syrian skies. Israel has established a field hospital in Ukraine, and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is one of the few heads of state to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow.

Ukrainian officials say some non-Jewish refugees were mistreated as they tried to enter the country, contrary to the relatively easy process for refugees of Jewish descent.

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

Others weren’t so lucky. Two of Ms. Tomin’s hotel women were evicted earlier this month.

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

Israel’s immigration authority did not respond to a response to comment on Ms Tomin’s case.

In parliamentary hearings, Israeli officials said they were surprised by the rapid buildup 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 begun reviewing applications from refugees to stay in Israel from abroad to reduce deportations.

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

Many Jewish refugees have had it easier, and their applications for citizenship are now expedited. Psychiatrist Ilya Tregubov, 40, fled Dnipro with his wife and teenage daughter after rockets started falling. In Lviv, he met with officials from Israel’s semi-governmental Jewish Agency, which verified their Jewish heritage and helped them emigrate to Israel. Mr Tregubov said he and his family are now Israeli citizens, living with his cousin in central Israel and working on their Hebrew.

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

Israeli officials say they expect 50,000 to 100,000 Jews to immigrate this year from countries that were once part of the former Soviet Union, thanks to a law that allows anyone with at least a large -Jewish parent to receive citizenship. Israeli officials also said nearly 2,000 Russians have already immigrated to Israel since the war began, and thousands more have submitted immigration applications.

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

Soviet immigrants in the early 1990s were the largest group of non-Jews Israel ever accepted, and it also took in non-Jewish refugees from Vietnam in the late 1970s. It 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 hasn’t really faced strong pressure from non-Jews to immigrate to Israel in the past, and therefore never really developed a coherent policy,” he said.

Some Ukrainian refugees are preparing to stay in Israel amid uncertainty about their status.

Alla Misiuk and her daughter are among a dozen non-Jewish families brought to Israel with the help of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum because their families once saved the lives of Jews during World War II.

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

“My house is destroyed. There is no place to return to,” she said.

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