(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky forecasts a 400 percent increase in immigration from Ukraine for the coming year, citing worsening economic conditions and the ongoing civil war in the country’s east as contributing factors.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post by phone from Dnipropetrovsk on Sunday, Sharansky said despite the avowed intent of many Jews displaced by the fighting to eventually return to their homes, emigration from the Eastern European nation will continue to grow significantly.
Approximately 4,200 Ukrainian immigrants have arrived in the Jewish state over the past year, an increase of 110 percent over 2013, according to the Jewish Agency.
Last week, 140 immigrants from Russia and Ukraine arrived in Israel, including refugees from the rebel separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The Jewish communities of those cities have been scattered to the winds by the conflict, with many taking refuge in Kharkov, Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk.
Sharansky himself is a native of Donetsk, and said several of the refugees with whom he met in Dnipropetrovsk recalled him as a young man in now war torn city.
After meeting with community leaders, local Jewish Agency representatives and the refugees themselves, Sharansky said it is clear to him that the current state of instability is “not something that will finish in another two or three weeks but will be a phenomenon which will be influencing Jews at least for the next couple of years.”
Many Ukrainian Jews are “still trying to gain some time and to postpone the decision, but it’s also clear on all the levels that they will have no choice in this decision” to emigrate, he said.
With the infrastructure in Donetsk and Luhansk shattered by combat, the cities will take a long time to recover, and even those who may want to move to Israel have expressed hope they will be able to return long enough to liquidate their property, he added.
“Whether [they want] to sell this property to survive here or to have some money to start their new lives in Israel... their main fear is that the moment that the authorities or the locals know that they made aliya, their property will be confiscated,” he explained.
While economic dislocations and the ongoing war will likely force many to make the move to Israel, the Jews of Ukraine represent those who declined to move to Israel during the mass emigration following the fall of the Soviet Union and “we still have to do everything to make this choice for them easier,” Sharansky said.
“Many people will try to postpone their choice another month and another month,” he said. “We are dealing with the hard core of those who are postponing this choice for tens of years.”
In conversations with The Jerusalem Post, many internally displaced Jews expressed their desire to return to their homes and members of communities outside the war zone have stated that they will ride out their country’s problems.
“The war has definitely not affected the Jewish life of the city in a positive way, but our Jewish life still goes on,” a representative of the communal leadership in Mariupol, just behind the front line, recently told this correspondent.
But increasing numbers of Jews are passing through the Jewish Agency’s facilities in Ukraine on their way to Israel, according to Sharansky, who predicted that the number of those coming will only continue to grow come winter.
“Even to the most resistant to aliya – it’s clear that they have no choice,” he said.