Israel's 'Plan B' to rescue Ukraine's Jews - interview with WZO Chairman

Diaspora Affairs: “We have about 7,000 candidates for aliyah staying at the moment in hotels and other facilities in Moldova, Hungary, Romania and Poland," WZO Chairman Yaakov Hagoel said.

WZO CHAIRMAN Yaakov Hagoel poses for a picture at the World Zionist Organization offices in Jerusalem. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
WZO CHAIRMAN Yaakov Hagoel poses for a picture at the World Zionist Organization offices in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

When World Zionist Organization Chairman Yaakov Hagoel was asked to temporarily fill in for then-outgoing Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog, he probably assumed he would need to participate in a few official events and ceremonies. Never in the world did Hagoel think he’d need to manage the largest aliyah operation Israel has seen in the past 30 years.

For the past nine months, Hagoel has been working as acting chairman of the Jewish Agency.

“I’ve been living and breathing data and numbers in the past months,” Hagoel told The Jerusalem Post this week. He has constantly asked for latest updates on the number of olim, the number of Ukrainian refugees who are staying in agency hotels in Europe, and the number of buses that are helping Ukrainian Jews escape.

On Thursday, the Department of Aliyah and Integration at Ben-Gurion Airport announced that 8,238 new immigrants have arrived in Israel since the outbreak of hostilities, more than 75% of whom emigrated from Ukraine. About 400 new immigrants were expected to enter Israel on Thursday. In addition, 2,342 immigrants chose to spend the first weeks in Israel in the hotels rented for them by the Aliyah and Integration Ministry.

It seems that every official and nonofficial entity dealing with aliyah from Ukraine has create its own name for the operation. At the agency it’s called Aliyah Express – and Hagoel explains that the idea is to shorten the amount of time that candidates for aliyah need to wait for their approval.

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

“Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has instructed us to have the airplanes wait for the olim, and not have the olim wait for flights,” he explained.

“We have about 7,000 candidates for aliyah staying at the moment in hotels and other facilities in Moldova, Hungary, Romania and Poland. In the past few days, we have prepared an outline, with the approval of the prime minister, that enables us to significantly shorten the process of those Ukrainian refugees who want to make aliyah,” Hagoel said.

He explained that the agency has databases of tens of thousands of people who have gone through programs affiliated with the organization such as Masa, high school programs in Israel and even Birthright Israel.

“We know through these databases who is entitled to become an Israeli citizen according to the Law of Return – at a very high accuracy rate. It’s not a 100% guarantee, but enough for us to let them board an aliyah flight and continue the process from Israel.”

During a press conference this week, Hagoel said that “the Jewish Agency continues to be at the forefront of its mobilization for the people of Israel in general and for Ukrainian Jewry in particular. The combination of the Jewish Agency’s forces, means and experience with the other bodies and organizations will help resolve the emergency crisis facing Ukrainian Jewry, while rescuing, absorbing and immigrating quickly in order to facilitate the thousands who arrive in Israel to their new home.”

Asked what was the situation with Russian Jewry as a result of the conflict, Hagoel told the Post that “we are prepared for olim from any country in the world – including Russia. In the last month, we’ve seen an influx of interest in aliyah from Russian Jews. There will be a huge rise in the numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union countries.”

Hagoel said he has been following closely what is happening on all fronts “24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Even though he keeps Shabbat, this operation has life-and-death implications.

Hagoel has visited the agency’s refugee centers in Poland and in Hungary, and has asked to praise the work of the Polish government. “One of the things I was thrilled about was that even though the Polish state is not saturated with resources, they are doing a phenomenal job with the refugees – housing, medical assistance and lots more. Although in Israeli eyes you may be in shock when seeing hundreds of refugees sleeping in a huge stadium, there is no doubt that the second option – of sleeping outside when it’s minus four degrees – is a lot worse. I think that the Polish government deserves applause for their holy work.”

What will you do if tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews decide to cross the borders at once – if, God forbid, the war becomes more deadly? Do you have enough space for such a huge number of refugees?

“We prepared in advance and rented thousands of rooms in the countries neighboring Ukraine.

“In a scenario of tens of thousands of Jews leaving Ukraine, we have other solutions that are not hotels, because there are not enough extra rooms. There are contingency plans of hosting the refugees in large complexes, like a stadium in Bulgaria that we have already secured, or a tent city in one of the neighboring countries.

“I will not get into details of these plans, and it also depends on the season, of course.”

Hagoel explained that in Poland alone, the agency secured 1,500 hotel rooms that are being offered to refugees.

“We knew well in advance, before the war started, to be in touch with hotels,” he said. “Today we have about 7,000 beds to offer in all neighboring countries of Ukraine, including more than 500 beds within Ukraine in the city of Lviv.”

How did the agency officials know to secure these rooms?

“Some will say we took a risk, some will say we were smart, but I, of course, think that those in the agency who offered to secure these rooms were very smart. There isn’t a single free room in hotels in Warsaw nowadays. In addition, before the first shot in Ukraine, we already had a hotline that operated 24 hours a day just for this purpose.”

Hagoel added that, in his opinion, there is an exceptional level of cooperation between all of the organizations working outside of Israel, orchestrated by the agency. “We are working in full cooperation with the JDC, Chabad, United Hatzalah and every organization that wants to help Jews. No matter if Zionist or not, we are there to help and cooperate. We are the most significant and leading factor in the issue of immigration of these refugees.”

One of the needs I saw was a shortage of manpower on the ground.

“We have over 100 people dealing with these issues of aliyah in neighboring countries of Ukraine – and this is after we sent more staff than originally planned.”

Is this enough?

“If we need more, we’ll send more employees and volunteers. In addition, in every given moment there is someone from our senior staff who is on the ground. The entire executive staff participates in situation assessments twice a day. There is not a day that goes by without us sending Israeli teams to the neighboring countries of Ukraine. There is not a day that goes by without planes bringing new olim.”

Yet there is no representation of agency officials at the borders.

“This is inaccurate. First of all, there are 16 to 18 border crossings. Some are borders that don’t let pedestrians go through – only vehicles. We are on buses that come from Lviv, and work closely with the Foreign Ministry, which is doing amazing work.”

Hagoel revealed that the agency is now working on creating a larger presence at the borders. “We are currently setting up large tents at each of the border crossings, if possible, but you have to understand that most of our work today is by phone though our hotline. We were with a candidate for aliyah from the second he contacted us by phone from Odesa until he immigrated to Israel – during all stages.

“We have no manpower shortage,” he added. “We have recruited employees from all our subsidiaries, Amigur, the Israeli experience, and the WZO. There is no ego. At first, we did not see the need for presence at the borders. I estimate there will be no border crossing where our presence is not visible.”

What will happen if, for instance, there is a ceasefire, and men will ask to reunite with their families. Are you ready for that type of situation?

“Family reunification is a challenge we have never experienced in the 1990s or in any other operation of aliyah. This is probably one of the main barriers to immigration. A family whose husband or son did not leave may want to wait in one of the bordering countries. On the other hand, if there is a ceasefire, there will be family reunification. The family may decide not to immigrate to Israel; they may go back to Ukraine or any other European country.

“More than half of the immigrants we are seeing are families with a husband or son not present. The big challenge is in the hands of the Israeli citizens: If we create the best absorption here for the women who immigrate; if they have a good place to live, a livelihood and an education for their children, there is a chance that the husband will join. If the absorption is not good, the family may join the husband back in Europe. This is a challenge we have not experienced in any other aliyah operation.”

Asked if he thinks it as a challenge to convince Ukrainian Jews to immigrate to Israel and not to other European countries, Hagoel’s answer was: “The Jewish Agency’s mission is to bring Jews to Israel, and we do all we can do in order for this to happen.

“The choice is theirs. I know of Jewish communities in Germany, for example, that are doing outreach toward Ukrainian Jews on the border of Ukraine and Moldova. It makes sense for this to happen.”

Is it a challenge?

“Clearly, it’s an important challenge, and we are investing tremendous efforts in it. We have two tremendous efforts outside of Israel. The first is to rescue Jews, and the second is to bring those who want [to come] to Israel.”

What would you like to say to Ukrainian Jews reading this interview?

“I call on them to immigrate to Israel, just as I call on Jews in Argentina and the United States, or in Honduras, to make aliyah. On the other hand, we respect every community and every Jew.”

An interesting fact that Hagoel pointed out is that most of the Ukrainian olim had a place to stay in Israel and therefore didn’t need assistance in housing when they arrived.

“Only a little more than a third of those entitled under the Law of Return who came to Israel from Ukraine chose to stay in a government-funded hotel in Israel. Two-thirds of them are staying with family or friends. That means a lot. They are all connected to Israel.”

He has been serving as acting chairman of the agency for nine months and, at the same time, running a committee that is supposed to find him a replacement. Yet, until now, none of the names that were offered received nine out of 10 votes.

Will we see a new chairman of the Jewish Agency anytime soon?

“The search committee has existed for nine months, and we continue to look for the best, most suitable, most deserving candidate to lead this amazing body called the Jewish Agency.

“We will continue the meetings of the committee to search for the most suitable candidate.”