Exodus from Russia: Will Israel accept thousands of fleeing Jews?

DIASPORA AFFAIRS: Tens of thousands of Russian Jews say they want to make aliyah, but is Israel ready to accept them?

 MEN DRAFTED into the Russian army during partial mobilization say goodbye to their relatives and acquaintances outside a military commissariat in Moscow, last month (photo credit: MOSCOW NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)
MEN DRAFTED into the Russian army during partial mobilization say goodbye to their relatives and acquaintances outside a military commissariat in Moscow, last month

‘If anyone [any Jew] from our community asks me if they should make aliyah to Israel under the current circumstances, I tell the vast majority to leave,” Rabbi Boruch Gorin, head of the Public Relations Department of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday in a phone interview from Russia.

Gorin is a member of the Chabad movement and close to Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar. The fact that Gorin would say such a thing publicly explains that Russia is in a very different place since President Vladimir Putin decided to draft men over the age of 18.

Gorin said that during this past Yom Kippur in Moscow, he saw about 20% fewer congregants than usual.

“It’s not a rumor; people are leaving Russia,” he said. “Most of those who have left or who plan to leave are people that have boys around that age of the draft, or [where] the father of the family may be at that age. These families are scared and frightened that the borders will be closed [for men].”

Asked whether he is considering leaving the country, Gorin responded that he was sent back to Russia by the Lubavitcher Rebbe after he left in 1991.

 A view shows an apartment block with a mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in the town of Kashira in the Moscow region, Russia October 6, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA) A view shows an apartment block with a mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in the town of Kashira in the Moscow region, Russia October 6, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA)

A new oleh from Russia told the Post on Thursday that “almost all the young [Jewish] men are trying to leave Russia. They are all either about to leave or they have left already. We don’t know when it will be forbidden for men to leave, but at the moment there are no restrictions.”

Asked whether the Jewish Agency is able to properly handle this situation while there is a court case against it in Russia, this new oleh answered that he thinks it is able to get the job done. “The Jewish Agency continues to operate in some form, and they are functioning. They reduced activity on the one hand, but on the other hand there is a lot going on online from their perspective.”

Yet there are two major difficulties, according to this oleh. “There is a problem with outbound flights from Moscow to Israel, and therefore it is difficult for people to make aliyah.” Another problem he pointed at is that “many Russians who immigrate to Israel aren’t permitted to open accounts in Israeli banks, because of the sanctions against Russia.”

In conversation with a senior agency official, it was explained to the Post that there are two approaches that they’ve identified among Russian Jews on the subject aliyah. The first approach states, “Don’t talk with us about leaving the motherland Russia.” These Jews try to show that they are even more loyal that the average Russian citizen. The second approach is, according to the official, of the Jews who want to look for a way out of Russia. “The community is divided,” he explained.

Another interesting trend in the Russian Jewish community is Jews who have recommitted to their roots. According to the senior official, the agency has seen a dramatic increase in requests to sign up for Jewish summer camps and Sunday schools that are operated by the agency. The sign-up rate is, according to the official, the highest it’s been in the past decade.

Asked how he explains this dramatic rise, the official said that “those who have already decided to stay understand that they must show themselves and their children that they belong to the Jewish community in a more active way. These Jews feel that it is necessary to show that they are rooted in the Russian Jewish community.”

AS REPORTED by the Post, Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata requested a budget of NIS 1 billion and received approval for only NIS 90 million in urgent funds for the new Russian olim. Expectations are of tens of thousands of Russian olim in the next few months.

“In the short term, the government will be credited with the quality of resources and services put into absorption of olim and the allocation of resources,” the agency official said.

Yet he has criticism regarding the long-term effect of Russian and Ukrainian aliyah in 2022. “We need to be able to absorb them as a country. If we have 2,500 people waiting for a Hebrew ulpan, then we have a problem. We are trying to get involved and to give a solution to the relevant ministries, but Israel had to be prepared for this situation – and it wasn’t.”

The responsibility for Hebrew ulpanim isn’t of the agency, but, rather, of the government. “There is an urgent need of 60 more classrooms for teaching Hebrew,” the agency source said.

As for the shortage of flights from Russia, the agency representative said that El Al is expected to make more flights available for this ongoing effort. He explained that even though reports speak of tens of thousands of Jews, or of those entitled to make aliyah, waiting to board a plane at any moment, the situation on the ground is less dramatic.

“There are seats on flights which we have booked ahead of time for October that are not yet finalized, since they don’t all want to immediately leave,” he said.

The agency official said that he knows of 2,500 future olim who have already received all approvals for aliyah. “Many of them just want a guarantee, a certificate, that shows that they are eligible to make aliyah. They want to know that they have an immigration visa to Israel, but don’t want to immigrate yet.”

He added that there are also those who call the agency’s call center and say that they “want to leave Russia now.” The official explained that “you can’t give service to someone who tells you they want a plane ticket for the next day.”

According to the agency, Nativ, Israel’s special government body in charge of connections with former Soviet Union countries, has been able to speed up the process for visas from nine months of waiting for a meeting to two months.

The agency won’t treat Russian Jews as refugees, as it did with Ukrainian Jews who fled the country.

“In terms of ability and eligibility, any Russian citizen can enter the State of Israel. They can leave Russia through any neighboring country and fly to Israel from there,” the agency official explained. “The agency’s opinion is that they [Russian Jews] should not be treated as refugees. We aren’t in a situation where we need to rescue 600,000 Jews. There are no battle zones in Russia.”

As reported earlier this week, the government approved a proposal to expedite the immigration of Russians who qualify under the Law of Return. In addition, the government authorized the agency to establish temporary camps in Finland and Azerbaijan for Russian Jews who seek to immigrate to Israel. Yet the senior agency official said that there are no temporary camps expected in the near future.

“We have offices in all of the neighboring countries and offer service there,” he said. He explained that there aren’t so many Russian Jews in these neighboring countries that it would be possible to rent hotel rooms for hundreds or thousands of them. “We received more than 2,000 new leads in the four days after Putin’s announcement, but after that we saw a drastic drop,” he said.

“Even though these are big numbers of olim, the agency and the State of Israel know how to handle this amount. We are not in a situation where we do not know how to respond,” the agency official stated.

According to the agency’s estimates, about 40,000 olim will arrive in 2022 from Russia alone. Till now and since the outbreak of the war, about 40,000 olim arrived from Ukraine and Russia together.

During this week’s cabinet meeting, Jewish Agency Chairman Doron Almog said that the funds allocated for the reception of emergency immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, of which NIS 200m. has been spent so far, were directed toward Ukrainian Jews (while most of the agency’s activities are outside of Israel).

“We need another NIS 300m. for activity in the next six months,” he said. The agency forecasts up to 6,000 immigrants per month in the next half a year, or 36,000 immigrants. Almog called upon the government to invest in this effort.

The agency official told the Post that “the agency, together with its partners from the Jewish world, had spent over NIS 200m. till now. The only thing that we expect from the government is to provide a safety net for this situation. The Jewish people in the Diaspora cannot finance all of this activity. It’s not an existing budget. The government must come into the conversation and increase the budget. Otherwise, the agency will be in a difficult situation.”

Members of the Israeli government have told the Post confidentially that “it doesn’t look as if Prime Minister Yair Lapid really cares about the aliyah from Russia. He isn’t as hands-on as former prime minister Naftali Bennett was.”

They added that “if Lapid would really want this aliyah to succeed, he would show a bit more of an interest and go out of his way to actually make sure that we can absorb them as a country.”•