Most Ukraine refugees don't want to come to Israel

DIASPORA: Israelis who expect Jews to immigrate in times of crisis are misreading the Diaspora.

 UKRAINIAN JEWISH refugees who fled the war in their country wait inside a hangar in the Moldovan capital Chisinau on March 15, before heading to the airport to board a flight to Israel. (photo credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
UKRAINIAN JEWISH refugees who fled the war in their country wait inside a hangar in the Moldovan capital Chisinau on March 15, before heading to the airport to board a flight to Israel.
(photo credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Amid the swirling debate this week about how many non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees Israel can and should allow into the country, Ukrainian Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk, his country’s top diplomat in Israel, had some rather undiplomatic advice for Israelis: Don’t think everyone is clamoring to get into your country.

“You don’t have to [flatter] yourself, Israel is not an easy country to come to because it is so expensive,” Korniychuk said last Friday at a press conference. “Ninety percent of the people who are coming either have relatives or friends here, who are asking Ukrainians to come.”

That evening he expanded on this theme during an interview with Channel 12: “Israel is not the easiest place to come or the most comfortable place to be. You are one of the most expensive countries in the world. And assuming most of the European countries are providing shelter, food, work permits, education for children – this is what’s going on. So what are you talking about?”

To paraphrase, this is what the ambassador said: You Israelis are worried that your country, of all the countries in the world, will be inundated by Ukrainians just dying to live here? Relax, it won’t happen.

Though a bit jarring to hear, the ambassador is probably right.

 Ukrainian Jews find refuge in Moldova (credit: IOSIF SNEGOVIK) Ukrainian Jews find refuge in Moldova (credit: IOSIF SNEGOVIK)

An estimated 3 million refugees, mostly women, children and the elderly, have fled across Ukraine’s borders since Russia invaded on February 24. They poured into neighboring countries – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova – and according to most refugee experts want to stay near Ukraine.

In many cases, they have left husbands, fathers, sons and brothers behind fighting in Ukraine – all males between the ages of 18 to 60 have been barred from leaving – and will want to rejoin them when the fighting ends. A few hundred thousand have taken trains and moved further into European countries, mostly Germany where an estimated 15,000 arrive in Berlin each day.

Compared to these numbers, the number of Ukrainians boarding planes and flying further afield is for the most part limited to those who have friends or relatives inviting them to their homes to ride out the storm. The 1.8 million Ukrainians currently in Poland, in other words, are not on their way to Israel.

What is true of the general population is also true of the Jewish population, or more precisely, those Ukrainians eligible to move to Israel and receive automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. This law grants citizenship to anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent, or who is married to a Jew, married to the child of a Jewish parent, or to the grandchild of a Jew.

According to this definition, there are some 200,000 Ukrainians who are eligible to immigrate to Israel – people who could come here not as refugees, but as full-fledged citizens. Of this number, about a quarter are believed to have at least one Jewish parent.

The war in Ukraine has triggered talk among politicians and in the media that Israel is on the cusp of a major wave of immigration – not only from Ukraine but also from Russia, where the sense is that scores of people will be interested in leaving the country before another Iron Curtain falls that will make leaving much more difficult, if not impossible. According to Jewish Agency estimates, there are currently some 650,000 Russians eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

It is this pool of 850,000 people eligible to immigrate from Russia and Ukraine that has triggered talks of the possibility that some 100,000 Jews from those two countries might be on the way to Israel this year. On Monday, the cabinet approved a plan to deal with just such an eventuality.

But are they really on their way?

Every time Jews find themselves in areas of distress, the talk begins in Israel of an imminent aliyah wave. Think back to how the country was gearing up for a massive wave of aliyah from France resulting from the terrorism and violent acts of antisemitism in that country during the first two decades of this century.

Following the killing in Toulouse in 2012 of a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school, the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a kosher market, and the attacks in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people, there was expectation of a massive aliyah wave from France. Cabinet discussions were held on the matter, plans were made to absorb the immigrants, emergency fundraising campaigns were launched in Federations abroad to help absorb them.

True, 2014 and 2015 saw record numbers of French immigrants – 7,240 in 2014 and 7,892 in 2015, way up from 1,917 in 2012 – but some 15,000 immigrants in two years out of a French Jewish population of a half million Jews does not a deluge make.

Traces of this phenomenon are evident to some degree in talk one hears in certain circles here about how the recent synagogue shootings in America – Pittsburgh, Poway and Colleyville – will lead to a significant spike in aliyah from the US.

It hasn’t.

Much was made of the fact that some 4,051 olim arrived in 2021 from the US, the most since 1973. But this number was larger than usual because 2020, the year of COVID, was lower than average with people unable to move because of the pandemic, and as a result some of those immigrants who would have arrived in 2020, pushed it off until 2021. 

The higher-than-average figure also included a new phenomenon: American Jews with children or property in Israel making aliyah for the passport, so that even during a pandemic, when tourists can’t gain entry, they would be able to travel here and visit their kids or use their apartments, but with no real immediate intention to settle.

The same phenomenon, “Passport Aliyah”, has existed for years in other countries, especially in Russia, where some people take out an Israeli passport either because it makes travel easier, or as an insurance policy. This is similar to Israelis taking out EU passports because they are eligible – from states such as Germany, Spain, Portugal – not because they plan to move to Madrid, Lisbon or Berlin, but because it gives them easier access to the EU.

Just as there was a disconnect between the talk of a huge influence of French Jews in the middle of the last decade, and the expectation among some that there will be a significant increase of North American aliyah, so too is there likely to be a disconnect between the number of possible Ukrainian immigrants being bandied about by various officials, and the final number who will actually arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport and throw their futures and destinies in with Israel.

According to Jewish Agency figures, the number of Ukrainians who have over the last few years shown any interest in immigrating to Israel – exhibited by signing up for information events run by the Jewish Agency, Hebrew classes, or taken part in any Israeli cultural event – numbers some 22,000. And, obviously, not all of those people are sitting on bags plastered with “Tel Aviv or bust” stickers.

The war in Ukraine has induced people there and in Russia to think about leaving their homeland, and they are exploring various options. But this is where the disconnect comes in. Israelis, for whom the idea of Israel as a refuge for Jews in distress is hard-wired into their DNA, think that it is obvious that if Jews in the Diaspora have to flee, or want to leave their countries of birth, they will want to come to Israel.

The sad reality, at least from a Zionist perspective, is different.

According to a paper presented in 2019 by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mark Tolts at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, a total of 291,000 Jews left the Soviet Union between 1970 to 1988, 56% of whom came to Israel, with the rest going elsewhere, primarily to the US or Germany. However, in certain years, such as 1976-1988, the majority of those leaving Russia, Ukraine and Belarus went to the US.

An estimated 1.7 million Jews left the former Soviet Union since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, of which 1.1 million, or about 65%, came to Israel. However, in certain years, for example from 2002 to 2004, more Jews from the former Soviet Union went to Germany than to Israel.

Likewise, during the middle of the last decade when French aliyah to Israel rose significantly, the number of French Jews who emigrated to Britain, Canada and the US rose to the same degree, though no exact figures are available. 

But just to give a sense of this trend, a French Jewish community emerged during those years in Miami, a city more associated with absorbing Jews from South America, than France. Asked why French Jews would want to go to Miami, one Jewish Agency official quipped: “It has all the benefits of Eilat, without the army duty.”

Israelis who expect that those Jews who can immigrate here will do so in times of crisis, misread Diaspora Jewish communities, as well as those who are eligible to immigrate. This is not the 1940s during the Holocaust when Jews literally had no place to take them in. As the Ukrainian crisis is showing, countries are willing to take in European refugees, Jews among them.

As such, if you are a Ukrainian Jew with little or no Jewish identity, or even a non-Jew eligible to immigrate to Israel because you are married to a spouse who has a Jewish grandfather, why choose Israel, for instance, if you could go to Poland or Germany – countries closer to home, where the culture and rhythm of life are more similar.

Those with a sense of Jewish identity, relatives here, or no other viable options, will come here. The Jewish Agency forecast is that some 15,000 Ukrainian immigrants will arrive this year, with another 10,000 to 15,000 Russian olim likely to arrive as well. While impressive – 3,100 immigrants arrived from Ukraine last year, as did 7,700 Russian immigrants – those numbers are far less than the numbers being discussed in the media.

It is good that the cabinet approved plans drawn up to absorb 100,000 Ukrainian and Russian immigrants. It is always good to be ready. But it is also always good to be realistic, and those numbers are likely way too optimistic.•