Massive Ukrainian Aliyah wave needs different approach

Bennett is not impressed with the quality of service at the Jewish Agency's Global Center for olim.

 Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata is seen greeting Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel through Operation Israeli Guarantee, on March 6, 2022. (photo credit: Noga Melasa/Aliyah and Integration Ministry)
Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata is seen greeting Ukrainian refugees arriving in Israel through Operation Israeli Guarantee, on March 6, 2022.
(photo credit: Noga Melasa/Aliyah and Integration Ministry)

“Get me a phone, I want to see how this call center works,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday, during an Aliyah and Integration Ministerial Committee meeting,

referring to the Jewish Agency’s Global Center call center that answers questions about aliyah from around the world.

Bennett wasn’t able to get through. After about five minutes, during which the option for a Ukrainian-language menu took a very long time, the recording asked the caller to leave details and said a representative would call back.

Bennett, who comes from a business and hi-tech background, knows a lot about quality assurance, marketing and customer relations. He wasn’t happy with the situation at the Global Center, and told Agency officials to immediately fix it. He also criticized the Global Center not being open 24 hours a day.

Nevertheless, Israel is doing an amazing and important job in and around Ukraine. Our diplomats are on the borders, and Jewish organizations are assisting with humanitarian situations and helping Ukrainian Jews get to Israel.

As a nation, we work best during crisis situations. Unfortunately, we have too much experience when it comes to terrorism and being refugees. The Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee and the Foreign Ministry are doing an amazing job. They are working day and night to save every single Jew, and to help them get out of a terrible crisis that Europe has not seen since the Holocaust.

But we can do better. We NEED to do better.

I’ve seen the Ukrainian-Polish border, and I’ve been to the refugee camps – mainly hotels that the Jewish Agency, JDC or Chabad have secured for Jewish refugees. There isn’t enough staff in many of these locations. The Agency had three emissaries in Ukraine, and they are now running facilities across Europe for those who want to make aliyah. After some of them worked in these hotels on their own, more staff members have been sent there.

But this is still not enough.

Representatives of Nativ are working at the hotels, a senior Israeli official who recently visited Poland told me. But the refugees need to wait in line for many hours – they cannot sit down while waiting since there is nowhere to sit.

These people have been through hell over the past two weeks. They’ve left their lives behind, their careers, families and their belongings. Many of them are in trauma; others need medical assistance.

There aren’t enough people in these facilities to take someone to a hospital if needed. They cannot give enough attention and service to each potential new Israeli citizen, since there are hundreds of them at times and only a few Israeli officials.

So can’t we at least try to give them the best service possible?

ISRAEL HAS a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get these refugees to Israel and possibly have them become citizens. Many officials I’ve spoken with talk of an opportunity to bring 100,000 Jews from former Soviet Union countries. Some even say we have an opportunity to get 200,000 Jews to come.

If this is really a priority for the State of Israel, there are a few things that need to happen:

First, instead of one or two representatives of Nativ dealing with the paperwork before the Jewish Agency takes care of their aliyah, there should be 10 to 15. Instead of one Agency official, there should be 20. Israel has more than a million Russian speakers, and there are about that many Russian-speaking Jews in North America as well. We need them on the ground right now.

We need to secure more rooms and hotels. There isn’t any room for them or Jewish refugees who are asked to travel somewhere else to change their clothes and take a shower for the first time in a week. Instead of coming to our facilities, many are getting service from other countries.

We need to find permanent housing for these refugees in Israel. We need to give Israeli companies an incentive to hire these refugees and make sure our laws do not discriminate against them. We need to make sure that Ukrainian doctors can be doctors in Israel, even if this means they will have to be supervised for a certain amount of time.

How can it be that every organization works on its own with minimal amounts of cooperation? There isn’t one senior figure who can see the broad picture and give feedback to relevant organizations or ministries.

The Israeli government needs to spend huge amounts on this important and strategic project.

“Israel should be able to find solutions and offer these refugees aliyah immediately,” said one representative of a large Jewish organization, on the Ukrainian border. “Otherwise, they will go elsewhere.”

He said many Jewish communities around the world have been offering to accept these refugees, and that “Israel is losing its historic opportunity to have these refugees make aliyah, just as it did in the 1990s.” About a third of the Jews from the FSU immigrated after the USSR fell apart, and the rest left for countries that provided good social services, including the US, Canada, Germany and Australia.

The same mistake can happen now if we don’t wake up quickly. There should be no egos involved. The organizations should speak out and demand larger budgets for as many employees as possible.

Bennett understood this. Senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office said he would now treat the situation in Ukraine the way he managed the corona pandemic, and will demand answers and be more hands-on than usual.

Bennett and Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata have appointed Meir Spiegler to head the national task force on the absorption of refugees from Ukraine, Russia and the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. He currently serves as director-general of the National Insurance Institute, and is considered a great manager who gets the job done.

Let us hope we do not miss this historic opportunity. Let us make sure we treat our brothers and sisters from Ukraine with the utmost respect and love.

We are great at promoting aliyah, but not so good at implementing it and absorbing these olim.

To the Israeli government: Wake up. It’s not too late yet.