Ukraine war ignites Israeli debate on purpose of Jewish state

JERUSALEM – Many of the refugees who roamed the lobby of a hotel in Jerusalem on a recent morning had endured excruciating travel from Ukraine and in many cases were forced to leave behind close family members.

Now safely in Israel, they were picking up SIM cards issued by the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption and starting to consider next steps.

“I feel safe here, which is probably the most important thing for now,” said 32-year-old Lena Ivanova, a fashion business owner in Odessa. I am concentrating on where to live. I have a lot of decisions to make.”

They were lucky.

By virtue of their being Jewish, having at least one Jewish parent or grandparent or, as in Ivanova’s case, having a Jewish spouse, they are automatically granted Israeli citizenship upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. qualified for

Others were not as lucky.

Of the more than 15,200 Ukrainians who have arrived in Israel since the start of the war last month, about 11,000 do not meet the citizenship threshold. Although most have relatives or friends in Israel, they are considered refugees, not immigrants, and subject to strict regulations.

The flood has ignited an emotional debate over what it means to be a Jewish state, pitting Israel’s national imperative to uphold the Jewish character against Jewish values ​​that demand the care of those in need.

Some right-wing politicians and commentators have warned that the continued influx of non-Jews into the country could undermine its Jewish identity. Right-wing lawmaker Bezel Smotrich warned that Israel’s acceptance of the refugees would “flood the state of Israel with Gentiles.”

More liberal politicians and religious leaders have cited the biblical mandate to love the stranger and the moral lessons of the Jews’ long history of being refugees themselves.

Nachman Shai, the left-wing minister for expatriate affairs, said the debate “should be centered on the values ​​of the State of Israel, because without them it would not be a Jewish state.”

Speaking on the phone from a train platform full of refugees in Warsaw, Poland, he said, “Anything that sends the message that we are closing the door is terrible and against our Jewish and humanitarian values.”

Israel’s right-wing interior minister, Aylet Shek, announced this month that Israel would take in 5,000 non-Jewish refugees on a temporary basis and allow 20,000 Ukrainian non-Jews already to live in the country, most of whom were illegally then. Will stay till the end of the fight.

“The images of the war in Ukraine and the suffering of its citizens shake one’s soul and do not allow us to remain indifferent,” she said.

But the tough quota, which was already close to being filled, when it was announced, prompted public outrage and criticism from other government ministers.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Israel had a “moral duty” to take in more non-Jewish refugees.

“We will not close our gates and our hearts to those who have lost everything,” he said while visiting the border crossing between Ukraine and Romania. “In Israel, there are 9 million residents, and our Jewish identity will not be harmed by another few thousand refugees.”

Shaked later liberalized the guidelines, saying any Ukrainians with relatives living in Israel would be temporarily allowed and the quota of 5,000 would not count. That policy has also been criticized as too restrictive because it punished refugees without families in Israel.

On Sunday, in a virtual address to Israeli lawmakers, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, begged him to show more compassion, comparing the suffering of Ukrainians during the Holocaust to the Jewish people.

“Our people are now scattered around the world,” he said. “They are looking for security. They are looking for a way to live in peace. As you once discovered.”

Israel has walked a fine line during the war, trying to aid Ukraine without alienating Russia, with the cooperation it needs to work against Iranian forces in Syria. Israel has deep ties with both countries, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has served as a mediator.

Jews have a complicated history with Ukraine. Once home to a large, thriving Jewish population, Ukraine was the scene of widespread pogroms in the early 1900s and some of the worst mass murders of the Holocaust during World War II, often carried out with the help of Ukrainian aides.

That history looms large in the current debate.

“We have our memories of a time when Jews were not accepted in so many Western countries,” said Professor Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish Public Policy Institute, an independent research group based in Jerusalem.

Some of those waiting at the borders are “grandchildren of people who were cruel to my grandparents,” he said. “So what? They are humans. The lesson of the Holocaust is not to behave equally, but to open the door.”

But for others, the lesson of the Holocaust is the need for a Jewish homeland, and for this reason, some right-wing activists have objected to Israel taking in more than a symbolic number of non-Jewish refugees on a temporary basis. ,

“We know that in Israel, what is temporary, becomes permanent,” said Israeli lawyer and right-wing activist Avichai Buaron. “It will be even more difficult to uproot them.”

Critical debate over immigration policy in Israel is hardly new, most recently over the fate of relatives of Israelis of Ethiopian descent and earlier asylum seekers, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, who entered Israel illegally from Egypt.

But even for many lucky Ukrainians, life in Israel is likely to be complicated. While Israel’s Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to many people with Jewish connections, the religious law enforced by the Israeli authorities is strict.

Of the approximately 200,000 Ukrainians eligible for Israeli citizenship, less than a quarter are considered religious or Jewish under Israeli law, and those who do not may face problems such as not being able to officially marry. Strictly Orthodox state religious authorities have a monopoly on legal Jewish marriages in Israel, and there is no civil marriage.

“Once here, many people will have to face the complexity of life in Israel for non-Jewish immigrants,” said Alex Riff, a Ukrainian-born poet and advocate for Russian-speakers in Israel.

He said one solution is a more liberal conversion policy for those who want to convert to Judaism.

The minister for religious services, Matan Kahana, has been promoting a version of such a reform, but has faced stiff opposition from ultra-Orthodox leaders.

Kahana has also tried to promote a plan to reduce the scope of the law to exclude non-Jewish grandchildren of a Jew and to reduce the number of non-Jewish immigrants, but they have to be put under proposal in the current government. There was little support for

Riff and other activists met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week and urged him not to “repeat the mistakes of the ’90s”, which included a failure to recruit new immigrants into the workforce, which led to doctors and engineers. Had to take a cleaning job to make a living. ,

With dozens of new immigrants from Ukraine being held at the Caesars Hotel in Jerusalem, it was hard to think a day ahead. Many were left behind by elderly parents as well as husbands, brothers and sons of draft age who could not leave the country.

65-year-old Viacheslav Kolpaka, a physician from Kyiv, Ukraine, had come with his wife Svitlana and a teenage daughter, Daria. A son was already living in Israel. The second was unable to leave Ukraine.

“How can it feel like a person who left their home, having collected everything they had collected in life, and ran away with only their clothes on their backs?” Kolpaka said. His hope, he said, was to be able to contribute to his new home by working in his profession.

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