Why are most Ukrainian Jewish refugees going to Europe, not Israel? - analysis

Better benefits and an easier time getting recognized as Jewish by other countries make Israel an unattractive option for Ukrainian refugees.

 UKRAINIAN REFUGEES this week at the border with Poland in Medyka. (photo credit: Hilik Magnus/Passport Card)
UKRAINIAN REFUGEES this week at the border with Poland in Medyka.
(photo credit: Hilik Magnus/Passport Card)

Israel has invested billions of shekels for the rescue and support of Ukrainian Jews from war-ravaged Europe. Despite Israeli government and Jewish Agency predictions that a large majority of these refugees will proceed to make aliyah, only a small percentage of them actually did.

More than 10,000 Jewish and non-Jewish refugees have immigrated to Germany and are being cared for by the German Jewish community umbrella organization. Aron Schuster, director of the Central Welfare Office of Jews in Germany (ZWST) has sent The Jerusalem Post an updated report on the matter.

“In order to understand the numbers, it is important to note that Germany has been accepting Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union (FSU) since its collapse at the beginning of the 1990’s,” the report reads.

According to Schuster, around 45% of German Jews today are Ukrainian and about 90% are from the FSU. Unlike Israel, Germany only accepts people who are halachically Jewish as Jewish refugees, as part of their program that is intended to assist Jews, while acknowledging the country’s Holocaust history.

Israeli sources told the Post that there are about 30,000 Ukrainian refugees in Germany that are eligible to make aliyah and become Israeli citizens, according to the Law of Return.

 Ukrainian refugees are seen arriving in Israel as part of Operation Israeli Guarantee, on March 6, 2022. (credit: Sraya Diamant/GPO) Ukrainian refugees are seen arriving in Israel as part of Operation Israeli Guarantee, on March 6, 2022. (credit: Sraya Diamant/GPO)

According to official Israeli government stats, about 14,000 Ukrainians have made aliyah since the war broke out in Ukraine. The stats don’t specify how many are halachically Jewish, but the assumption is that most of them aren’t.

Add to these numbers the fact that there are about 2,000 Ukrainian Jews under the care of the Austrian Jewish community and a few tens of thousands living in other European countries, and it’s clear that Israel is far behind the expectations it had for this wave of olim from Ukraine.

According to demographer Sergio Dellapergola, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, about 45,000 Jews lived there. According to him, about 200,000 people who qualify as Jews according to Israel’s Right of Return law lived in Ukraine before the war.

So why did these refugees decide to immigrate to Germany or Austria rather than Israel?

“Special conditions apply in Germany to the admission of Jewish immigrants from the countries of the former Soviet Union,” The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees website states.

Jewish refugees from Ukraine hold a different status than other refugees accepted in Germany, Dr. Felix Klein, the federal government’s commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against antisemitism told the Post in June.

“The difference is that they can start to work right away; they have working permits right from the beginning,” he said. Being a Jewish refugee in Germany “is a privileged position, compared to other asylum-seekers,” because of the painful historic connection.

Refugees to Germany receive housing, a monthly stipend and many other benefits that Israel either hasn’t been able to compete with – or has decided that it isn’t important enough for it to compete with – and therefore has lost a potential of tens of thousands of additional new immigrants with Jewish background or connection.

Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata has requested a sum of NIS 1 billion in order to create special programs and absorption packages for these olim. She was only given an additional modest budget of NIS 90 million, less than 10% of her request.

Israel has unfortunately lost its historic opportunity to absorb tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jewish refugees and those with Jewish roots. Most have decided to live in other countries as a result.

They know that they have the option to immigrate to Israel, even temporarily, but other countries seem like better options, at least for now.

It might not only have to do with benefits, but also with the fact that many of them wouldn’t be considered Jewish in Israel according to the Chief Rabbinate and will therefore have difficulties to marry and bury their loved ones in Jewish cemeteries.

The Israeli leadership and the next Israeli government need to assess this situation and determine if aliyah from Ukraine is a priority for the Jewish people. If it is, things need to be done very differently than they have been so far.