Jewish Agency efforts in Ukraine hampered by Israeli government

"We're working with our hands tied behind our backs," interim Jewish Agency head Yaakov Hagoel said at a Knesset committee.

 IN JULY, newly-elected Israeli president and outgoing chairman of the Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog and chairman of the World Zionist Organization Yaakov Hagoel attend a farewell ceremony held in Herzog’s honor at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
IN JULY, newly-elected Israeli president and outgoing chairman of the Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog and chairman of the World Zionist Organization Yaakov Hagoel attend a farewell ceremony held in Herzog’s honor at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

Efforts by the Jewish Agency to help bring Ukraine’s Jews to Israel have been harmed by the Foreign Ministry’s decision to remove agency staff from the country, interim agency head Yaakov Hagoel said at a discussion in the Knesset Law Committee Monday.

“We’re working with our hands tied behind our backs,” he said.

The committee convened for a discussion on Israel’s preparations for a wave of immigration from Ukraine. Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said the issue was historic, and that “Jewish solidarity is being re-worked for the 21st century.”

Committee chairman Gilad Kariv (Labor) said it was fitting for his committee to deal with the issue because it legislated the Right of Return. He called for the formation of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, which has not been formed due the boycott of Knesset committees by the opposition.

Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata also lashed out against the opposition for refusing to form the committee, saying that it bordered on negligence.

An argument broke out as to who exactly would be allowed to make aliyah. MK Yosef Taieb (Shas) called the issue “an elephant in the room.”

A first group of immigrants set out last night from Lviv, Ukraine, to Poland in a complex Jewish Agency operation (credit: JEWISH AGENCY)A first group of immigrants set out last night from Lviv, Ukraine, to Poland in a complex Jewish Agency operation (credit: JEWISH AGENCY)

The Situation in Ukraine

Elizabeta Katz, a 22-year-old from Ukraine who immigrated to Israel at the age of 14 and whose entire family is still in Ukraine, said that her mother, who works for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, went to work in order to assist the Jewish community even after a night of shelling.

Rabbi Abraham Wolff of Odessa spoke via video conference and said that there were some 8,000 elderly people in the city who were struggling to find food since they were afraid to go out and the supermarkets were empty. A humanitarian disaster is seven to 10 days away, he said, his voice breaking. He thanked Israel for its assistance but said that the priority was for basic needs, not for geting them to come to Israel.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said that his office was focusing on four areas of assistance: security, food and medicine, refugees within Ukraine and refugees from Ukraine outward. Some NIS 10 million was allocated to the issue immediately from the office’s budget, he said. The budget will be increased, and he expressed hope that the Finance Ministry would follow suit. The event could potentially contribute to a sense of Jewish solidarity, and give it new meaning relevant to the 21st century.

A free hotline was set up in order to assist Ukraine’s Jews, and has received thousands of calls, Hagoel said.

On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry directed the Jewish Agency representatives to leave Ukraine, but they could be sent back into the country as their extraction complicated the process, Hagoel said.

The Jewish Agency allocated $2.5 million for Ukrainian Jews’ security and an additional $1.5 million for current security aid as there were fears of looting and misuse of the weapons that were handed out by Ukranian authorities.

Israel's Preparations

Forty-three hotels in Israel with 6,500 beds were made available for a month in anticipation of a wave of Ukrainian immigrants, Hagoel said.

A fundraising drive will be launched in coming days in cooperation with the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel,

Some 475 immigration requests have been made in the current crisis. Tamano-Shata praised Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked for allowing the new immigrants to come to Israel as tourists and then go through the absorption process in Israel. She also questioned why the Jews of Ethiopia were not receiving the same treatment even though a civil war has been going on there for over a year.

Aliyah and Integration Minister Director-General Ronen Cohen said that absorption areas were set up at Ben-Gurion Airport for the new immigrants. Families will receive NIS 15,000, and individuals will receive NIS 6,000 upon reaching the country.  

Israel's Responsibility

MK Zvika Hauser (New Hope) compared the current situation to the end of the 1980s.

“In 1989, if you would have asked if one million Jews would make aliyah, no one would have believed,” he said. “Everything we have done since then – the Start-Up Nation – has changed the horizon of the country for the better. Former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir had the foresight to believe that this could happen, and we should too,” he said.

He called on the government to focus solely on this challenge, which he deemed strategic. If Israel invests NIS 5 billion in the next five years, it will gain NIS 500 billion back, he said.