Jerusalem, we have a problem: Ukrainian aliyah not reaching its potential - analysis

There needs to be a presence at the borders; with the big sign of the Jewish Agency or the Foreign Ministry and Israel, with supplies that can be given to these refugees when they cross the border.

  Ukrainian Jewish refugees arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, March 6, 2022.  (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH)
Ukrainian Jewish refugees arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport, March 6, 2022.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH)

During my two recent visits to Poland and the Ukrainian border, I asked a few times: Why aren’t there any representatives of the Jewish Agency or of Israel’s Foreign Ministry at the borders? Why isn’t there a big tent with an Israeli flag and official representatives of the State of Israel or JAFI (Jewish Agency for Israel) welcoming the refugees? Why aren’t representatives on the ground, trying to see if any of these Ukrainian Jews want to move to Israel?

The answers were complex, but they were not that convincing. Is it about a shortage of personnel? Not at all, I was told. Yet the agency only had two full-time Israeli shlichim (emissaries) working in Ukraine before the war broke out. Now, both of them are in Poland. The other three countries with Ukrainian Jewish refugees have no official shaliach at all, except for those who work for the Israeli office or volunteers who used to be shlichim.

The first explanation is that the Jewish Agency has substantially cut the number of emissaries and local workers in the Former Soviet Union in the past few years. In 2018, there were eight “mobile” Israeli emissaries across the FSU countries promoting aliyah, six full-time ones and 127 local workers. Mobile emissaries doubled to 16 in 2019, and another full-time one was added.

But last year, the situation was dramatically different: The number of mobile ones went back to eight, and there were only four full-time ones in the entire FSU. In addition, the number of local workers dropped by more than a third, from 127 in 2019 to 82 in 2021.

Jewish Agency officials also said the salaries of these emissaries haven’t been updated in six years, even though the economic situation is dramatically different. This causes a situation where it is hard to recruit high-level and experienced emissaries, according to these agency officials.

 Ukrainian fleeing war zones in  Ukraine are seen at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Palanca Moldova, on  March 3, 2022. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90) Ukrainian fleeing war zones in Ukraine are seen at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Palanca Moldova, on March 3, 2022. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

“We’re missing the wave of aliyah,” a senior official in Israeli governmental Jewish organizations said.

“There are 800,000 [people] eligible for immigration in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, according to the Law of Return,” he said. “In Russia alone, there are inquiries from about 20,000 Jews to make aliyah.”

“In Ukraine, there are between 50,000 to 80,000 people who we know of who are eligible to make aliyah, yet only approximately 12,000 are in Jewish Agency hotels in Europe or have already made aliyah, when the potential from Ukraine alone is about 200,000 people eligible for Israeli citizenship,” he added.

“All together, we are talking about approximately 25,000 people who are in touch with the Jewish Agency to make aliyah, instead of hundreds of thousands,” the official said.

The reason the numbers aren’t higher is that “the system is not ready or equipped for this type of immigration wave,” and the structure is too complex, the source said, adding: “Who’s managing the operation? Is it the prime minister? Is it the minister of aliyah? And what is the role of [National Insurance Institute head] Meir Spiegler, who was chosen by the government to be the special project manager for this complex aliyah operation?”

“Our competition is with the Germans, who are actively approaching Ukrainian Jews and offering them housing, a stipend and healthcare,” he said.

The senior official agreed with my earlier assessment: “There is no permanent Israeli or Jewish organizational presence at all of the relevant borders.”

Religious Zionist Party Director-General Yehuda Vald visited Moldova last week with Knesset members from his party. They met with representatives of all of the organizations working with the Jewish refugees and with official Israeli ones.

Vald listed three major challenges: Firstly, “there is no field team pushing and accelerating aliyah. Whether at the border crossings or the refugee camps, there are no teams representing the State of Israel and explaining to them why or how to immigrate.”

Secondly, he said, “the staff at the Israeli Embassy is tiny; there are only two or three consuls who are unable to manage the load of those waiting. There must be a way to get more Israeli diplomats to assist with the process. There are close to 2,000 people who are waiting.”

The third challenge is that the “United Hatzalah organization, which is assisting all of the organizations on the ground, including sending their own aliyah flights, will be leaving Moldova in a few days,” Vald said. “I’m afraid to see what will be when they leave and worry that they may not be replaced. The State of Israel has much more to do so that more Jews will come to Israel.”

In Moldova, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews took upon itself to fill the void and run the aliyah process. It has been running its own aliyah operation from several countries around the world over the past few years, including Ukraine. That an external foundation is running one of the four major centers helping Ukrainian refugees to immigrate is another example of privatization in the world of aliyah.

Obviously, Jewish Agency and Foreign Ministry representatives have gone through these borders many times, yet they do this only if they know a bus will be coming with refugees. They go to the other side of the border, wait for the bus to come and then transfer them to other buses going into Poland or other countries bordering Ukraine.

There needs to be a presence at the borders, with a big sign of the Jewish Agency, the Foreign Ministry and Israel, and with supplies that can be given to these refugees when they cross the border. These tents or huts should be equipped with information, psychological assistance and more.

This is something that could potentially inspire more people to decide to move to Israel, instead of being attracted by other countries or Jewish communities from around the world. The objective of the Jewish Agency and the State of Israel should be to bring these people to the Jewish state. If the Israeli government is not taking care of this, then we have a problem.