Jews count as refugees too - comment

Israel should take in Ukrainian refugees regardless of their religion.

  Ukrainian refugees at the Palanca crossing at the border with Moldova, March 3, 2022.  (photo credit: AVISHAG SHAAR YASHUV/IFCJ)
Ukrainian refugees at the Palanca crossing at the border with Moldova, March 3, 2022.
(photo credit: AVISHAG SHAAR YASHUV/IFCJ)

I’ll say it upfront: Israel should – with an open heart and a smiling face – generously take in Ukrainian refugees.

Not only those eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, meaning anyone with one Jewish grandparent, but also those without any connection to the Jewish people but who are just fleeing a war zone with the clothes on their back and a few possessions in their suitcases.

I say this as the son of a Holocaust survivor whose mother drifted stateless after World War II until finally finding refuge in Haiti, and then – after a struggle that lasted years – entered and was granted US citizenship. To this day I am forever grateful to Haiti and to the US.

I say this as an American-born Jew for whom Menachem Begin’s decision to take in Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s – before I made aliyah – was a moment of tremendous Zionist pride. Begin’s action seemed so natural, so good and so right. From 1977-1979, Israel took in some 360 Vietnamese refugees. The numbers were small, but the impact it left on young Zionists like myself was enormous.

I also think that Israel’s requirement that a NIS 10,000 deposit be demanded of every Ukrainian refugee not eligible under the Law of Return or their sponsor was scandalous, and that the government did the right thing – though it took too long – in repealing it Tuesday evening.

The demand for a deposit seemed a heartless bureaucratic decision that was taken at the spur of the moment without forethought. Reports that refugees at Ben-Gurion Airport were met by unfeeling officials and forced to wait hours are also maddening.

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

Israel, like most other countries around the world, was caught flat-footed and without a well-prepared plan on how to deal with a refugee crisis of this proportion from Ukraine. It took some time, but Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked unveiled such a plan Tuesday that includes allowing entry to 5,000 Ukrainians for at least three months who are not entitled entry under the Law of Return and allowing some 20,000 Ukrainians currently here without valid permits to remain.

Now it is time to stop with the self-flagellation about how heartless we are as a country and as a people.

First, we are not heartless. According to Interior Ministry figures, from the beginning of the fighting on February 24 until Sunday, some 2,034 Ukrainians were granted entry into the country, 90% of whom are not eligible under the Law of Return.

The United States has not yet let any refugees in and is in the process of determining policy. Australia offered 1,000 visas. Canada is still determining its policies. Why are those countries a fair basis of comparison? Because they, too, are Western, developed countries that do not border Ukraine.

According to a BBC report on Tuesday based on UN figures, some two million refugees have fled Ukraine, and the overwhelming majority have been absorbed temporarily in neighboring states: 1.2 million in Poland, 191,000 in Hungary, 141,000 in Slovakia, 83,000 in Moldova and 82,000 in Romania. From those countries, some 183,000 have moved on to other destinations in Europe.

Rema Jamous Imseis, the representative in Canada of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “When people are forcibly driven from their homes, most of them actually want to return, so they are staying close to home. They’ve left behind fathers, brothers, husbands, sons who are all now actively involved in the military activity.”

So in comparison with other states not bordering Ukraine, Israel’s response has not been, as a headline to a Haaretz op-ed had it, “Darkness unto the Nations.”

Second, Jews and non-Jews who qualify under the Law of Return are Ukrainian refugees as well, and Israel is preparing to take them in by the tens of thousands – not as refugees, here temporarily until they can return home, but as immigrants and as full-fledged Israeli citizens.

True, taking in Jews in distress is one of Israel’s very reasons for being. But it is still taking in refugees in distress. These people eligible for aliyah are – like all the other refugees – fleeing the invading Russian Army, and they should be counted toward Israel carrying its share of the free world’s responsibility to absorb refugees from this horrible tragedy.

As Shaked said, the forecast is that Israel will take in some 100,000 Jews and their relatives from Ukraine, which would be the equivalent of the US granting citizenship to 3.5 million Ukrainians.

For some reason, however, when Israel takes in Jewish refugees, it doesn’t seem to register.

For instance, the plight of the estimated 700,000 Arabs who became refugees after the creation of Israel and the War of Independence is much discussed. What is less talked about is that almost the same number of Jews from Arab lands were made refugees at the same time and were absorbed in Israel.

Why is one well known and the other less so? Because the Jewish refugees were taken in by Israel, which is, after all, what the Jewish state is supposed to do, isn’t it?

Yes it is, but they still were penniless refugees who felt the need to flee homes where they lived for generations. When one speaks of a refugee problem created by the establishment of the State of Israel, this, too, is part of it. Just because the Jewish refugees found a home in Israel that was more than willing to take them in does not make them any less refugees.

By the same token, just because Ukrainian Jews and their relatives will be allowed to immigrate to Israel doesn’t mean they are not refugees. Jewish refugees are also just plain refugees.

Why is it important to clarify that? Because even though some 100,000 Ukrainian Jews and their relatives are expected to come to Israel, there will still be those who will shout that Israel is not doing its share, has no heart and does not care.

That’s wrong. It does care, as it should. And it is doing its share. Can it do more? Of course, it can always do more. But that does not mean, as some will argue, that there is no value in what it is doing.