Majority of Israelis more open in letting in refugees from Ukraine - analysis

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked added insult to injury when she claimed that Israel had let in more Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other state that does not border on Ukraine.

 ISRAEL’S AMBASSADOR to Romania, David Saranga, shows a game to children at a refugee center set up at the Ukraine-Romania border. (photo credit: Israel Embassy in Romania)
ISRAEL’S AMBASSADOR to Romania, David Saranga, shows a game to children at a refugee center set up at the Ukraine-Romania border.
(photo credit: Israel Embassy in Romania)

The sight of non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees being held for many hours in a closed compound at Ben-Gurion Airport, where some of them were visibly being treated shabbily, was definitely not a pretty sight.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked added insult to injury when she claimed that Israel had let in more Ukrainian refugees per capita than any other state that does not border on Ukraine. Not only does this claim have no basis in reality, but the conditions under which non-Jewish refugees are being let into Israel are far removed from how they are being received in most European countries – in terms of how long they are being allowed to stay, and the conditions being offered to them.

Apparently, the majority of Israelis are in favor of being more generous and welcoming in letting in refugees, and it has been reported that several cities and local councils have made offers to absorb them, though not everyone favors letting non-Jewish refugees into the country.

Of course, the situation is not black and white. Israel’s main argument for its very qualified willingness to accept non-Jewish refugees is that it was established as a haven for Jews who faced closed gates everywhere, when they needed refuge most urgently during the Second World War. At the same time, one cannot avoid the question of how a people that has suffered because of locked hearts can treat others in a similar way.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai (Labor) is about to propose that immigration policy in general, and on the refugees from Ukraine in particular, should be dealt with by the government as a whole, and not exclusively by Shaked, so that all points of view on the subject will be taken into consideration.

 Ukraine refugees wait at stations close to the border (credit: AY Moldova) Ukraine refugees wait at stations close to the border (credit: AY Moldova)

If this proposal will be adopted, Israel’s official attitude toward the Ukrainian refugee issue will undoubtedly improve.

THE GOVERNMENT seems certain that as a result of the current crisis, Israel should expect as many as 50,000 Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Russia, even though no one really knows how many will arrive, especially since not all the Jews who will decide to depart from these two countries will necessarily choose Israel as their destination.

Immigrants from Russia and Ukraine are not necessarily welcome in certain sections of the Israeli population – especially among the ultra-Orthodox (because they believe that the majority of these immigrants are not Jewish) and the Mizrahim (because this immigration changes the demographic balance between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim). At the same time, all the countries that are welcoming Ukrainian refugees these days are not treating Jewish refugees differently than non-Jewish ones.

It is not only the potential number of Jewish immigrants that is unknown. Nobody knows how many non-Jewish refugees will seek refuge in Israel.

Certainly, non-Jewish refugees who have relatives in Israel – either among immigrants who arrived in Israel in the past, on the basis of the Law of Return, or because they have relatives among the around 20,000 Ukrainians who entered Israel illegally over the years for employment purposes, and whose status Israel has apparently offered to legalize at the expense of the current refugees – will seek to come to Israel.

However, for those who have no connection to Israel, the fact that Israel is one of the most expensive countries in the world, and the unfriendly and inhospitable treatment they are liable to receive at the hands of the authorities, are undoubtedly good reasons for them not to seek refuge in Israel. Several hundred refugees who have already been sent back to Europe will certainly deter others from trying their luck.

Ukrainian Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk cited the cost of living as one of the reasons he believes that the number of Ukrainian refugees seeking to enter Israel will not be great, adding that there is no reason for them to prefer Israel over European countries.

Incidentally, he does not seem to be familiar with all the reasons for Israel’s reservations on the issue of Ukrainian refugees.

For example, about two weeks ago Korniychuk claimed that Israel has a moral duty toward the Ukrainians who, according to him, saved many Jews during the Second World War. Yad Vashem recognizes 2,673 Ukrainians as “Righteous Among the Nations.” However, it is a known historical fact that Ukraine was among the East European states that collaborated with the Germans most closely in persecuting the Jews and implementing the “Final Solution.” True, the current president of Ukraine is Jewish on his mother’s side – something that would not have been possible 80 years ago. But antisemitism is by no means dead in Ukraine.

Korniychuk also demonstrated ignorance on another issue that plays a major role and causes many dilemmas in Israel’s policy on the current crisis. In an interview with Dana Weiss on Channel 12 last Friday, Korniychuk mocked Israel’s claim that it must be very careful in what it does, because Russia sits on its border with Syria. Certainly, he said, a few hundred Russian planes and some artillery in Syria is nothing to worry about The Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all have a common border with Russia in Europe, he added, and they are not afraid.

Of course not. All three states are members of NATO. Besides, Lithuania does not have a common border with Russia.

In addition, Israel is not afraid of a Russian invasion of Israel, but since Russia is in control at the moment in Syria, Israel seeks to coordinate with it on IAF attacks designed to thwart Iranian arms deliveries to Hezbollah and other Iranian activities carried out on Syrian soil. There is no doubt that if Israel will take a clear and unequivocal anti-Russian position on the Ukrainian crisis, such coordination might no longer be forthcoming. For Israel this is a critical issue, and if the ambassador is not clear on it, it is not certain whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is.

THERE IS no doubt that Israel has some knotty dilemmas to face in formulating its policy on issues connected with the Ukrainian crisis, and at times finds itself walking a tightrope.

The US administration is currently pressing Israel to take a clear stance on joining the international sanctions against Russia, while Israel’s avoidance of condemning Russia for its breaches of international law and alleged commission of war crimes in its attack against Ukraine has raised eyebrows in international circles.

Some cynics inside and outside Israel go so far as to suggest that Israel cannot condemn Russia for acts for which it is itself guilty in its relations with the Palestinians.

Though I belong to the political camp that believes that Israel must seek to end its occupation of the territories it occupied during the Six Day War and is still holding, and reach a solution with the Palestinians that will put an end to the denial of both their human and political rights, I do not believe that the crimes Russian President Vladimir Putin is committing in Ukraine today can be compared in any way in their scope and severity to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, whose circumstances are totally different.