Amid Ukraine crisis, Israel should be a safe haven for refugees - editorial

It is high time that Israel stop being so stringent in its opposition to absorbing refugees from distressed situations.

 Israelis protest on behalf of Ukraine outside the Knesset, February 28, 2022.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israelis protest on behalf of Ukraine outside the Knesset, February 28, 2022.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

As The Jerusalem Post’s correspondent Zvika Klein – who is in Poland reporting on some of the thousands of refugees crossing the border from war-torn Ukraine – eloquently stated on Tuesday, we should all be proud of Israel’s humanitarian efforts over the last week.

Israel was established as a state and a haven for all Jews, and the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven, like countless examples in the past throughout the world, that when Jews are in danger, Israel is there to help.

Along with global Jewish organizations, the government has sprung into action in an attempt to rescue the Israelis still in Ukraine and to aid the Jewish Ukrainians who are fleeing the country. On the ground, Foreign Ministry personnel have been working 24/7 at Ukraine’s borders, helping Israelis and Jews get to safety. 

As Klein pointed out, well before Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Russia in an unprovoked war, Israel had already invested unparalleled man hours and effort to prepare for the evacuation and life-saving decisions for tens of thousands of Israelis and Jews.

Back in Jerusalem, Israel hasn’t sat idle. An Israeli shipment of about 100 tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine arrived this week, including 17 tons of medical equipment and medicine, water purification systems intended to supply 200,000 people, emergency water supply kits to supply 100,000 people, winter tents to house 3,000, 15,000 blankets, 3,000 sleeping bags and 2,700 winter coats.

 The United Hatzalah delegation ahead of departure to Moldovia (credit: United Hatzalah Spokesperson) The United Hatzalah delegation ahead of departure to Moldovia (credit: United Hatzalah Spokesperson)

Ukrainian Jews are also taking advantage of Israel’s open doors to make aliyah. A family that Klein wrote about on Tuesday – Natalia and Andre Forys and their children, Arina, 12, and Max, six, from outside Kyiv – are on their way to their new home in the Jewish state. An estimated 10,000 Ukrainian Jews have registered to immigrate to Israel, out of 200,000 who are eligible.

It’s admirable, and as Klein wrote, makes one proud to be an Israeli.

However, another aspect of Israel’s efforts regarding the war is somewhat less admirable. On Tuesday, Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk told reporters that dozens of Ukrainian nationals had arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport and were sent back despite the ongoing humanitarian crisis caused by the Russian invasion.

The ambassador said that officials in Jerusalem were asking for bonds of up to NIS 20,000 to allow someone to remain in the country, money that none of these refugees have.

“We believe that you remember the times of the Second World War, when Ukrainians were saving the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. Ukraine is in fourth place, with almost 4,000 people who have been called Righteous Among the Nations... we are asking you to help the Ukrainians to overcome this tragedy now,” he said, calling the situation “humanitarian.”

Israel is admittedly hesitant to open the borders to non-Jewish refugees because there have been many instances in the past of tourists from former FSU countries who remained in the country illegally and began to work.

A spokesperson for Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked denied that Ukrainian refugees were not allowed into the country. 

“We are not deporting Ukrainians. Whoever wants to enter with a tourist visa is welcome. Whoever reaches Israel and, in accordance with the Population, Immigration and Border Authority’s questioning, is found to be someone who wants to be here for a month, as a tourist, can enter. Europe is absorbing all Ukrainian citizens for three years.”

In a speech Wednesday, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai criticized that policy, saying that the formal criteria for entry must be put aside during a time of emergency. 

“At this moment, we need to open the gates of the state of Israel to Ukrainian refugees,” he said.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with Shaked about adopting a “broader approach of Beit Hillel” in allowing Ukrainians into the country.

Those are encouraging signs. It is high time that Israel stop being so stringent in its opposition to absorbing refugees from distressed situations.

Israel is a strong country, its Jewish character and essence unthreatened by hundreds – or even thousands – of people who desperately need a haven. Just like we welcome in Jews from around the world with open arms, in times of war, we should do the same with whoever needs our refuge.