"There is a family with a baby that needs to leave Russia immediately, but they have nowhere to stay in Israel, even during the first few days!”
“A pregnant couple, 23 weeks – they have no money for tickets. If they don’t leave now, they won’t be able to fly.”
“What should we do? The nearest spot for the aliyah consular check in Israel is two months away. We have little kids and we can’t work in the meantime!”
This is just a sample of calls that Vaad Hatzalah, working to assist Ukrainian and Russian immigrants, gets from hundreds of confused and desperate Russian Jews every single day. As the Putin government is hunting down its own men and drafting hundreds of thousands for his bloody war, Russian Jews are desperate to leave and make a new life for themselves in Israel.
Since the start of the war, the Iron Curtain is tangibly coming down, and many analysts foresee the country declaring martial law and shutting its borders in the near future.
Against this backdrop, we would expect the Israeli government to pull out all stops to save Russian Jewry before it is too late. We would expect Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who was elected on the votes of Russian-speaking immigrants, to allocate the necessary resources for an emergency rescue effort. None of that has happened.
Although over 35,000 immigrants are expected to arrive in the next six months, almost three times the number of Ukrainian olim since the start of the war, the government has satisfied itself with empty declarations, confusing and unimplementable policies, and a puny budget of NIS 90 million, which is hardly sufficient to cover the necessary Moscow-Tel Aviv airfare.
To understand the plight of 150,000 Russian Jews, it is sufficient to hear the stories and watch the videos of men being rounded up at subway stations and building entrances and sent, unequipped and untrained, to serve as cannon fodder in Ukraine. Most of the bordering countries have closed their borders to Russian passport holders, while military authorities set up mobile draft stations at the remaining border crossings.
Families face struggles while attempting aliyah
The closest spot for an aliyah interview at the Jewish Agency offices in Russia is a year away and the price of airline tickets to Israel (usually with two-three stops via places like Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) has tripled in recent weeks.
Many families opt for what they call “emergency aliyah” – coming to Israel as tourists and completing the citizenship process here. Yet here too, the lines are months long and in the meantime, these families receive no assistance nor can they support themselves by working. Even something as basic as renting the first hotel room or Airbnb space is problematic, with Russian credit cards boycotted due to sanctions.
Needless to say, these families cannot sell their assets or bring over their own money, as the Russian banking system is cut off and Israeli banks are unwilling to deposit funds originating in Russia or earmarked for Russian citizens.
IN MANY ways, the situation of Russian Jews is even direr than that of their Ukrainian brothers. While Ukrainian Jews fled from bombs and ruthless occupation, local rabbis worked tirelessly to encourage people to leave. Thankfully, numerous organizations operated rescue missions, while neighboring countries opened their borders and their hearts to assist the refugees.
On the other side of the border, thousands of volunteers awaited to assist. Jewish refugees were housed in hotels and supported by local communities on their way to Israel.
And once here in Israel, the new immigrants were provided with initial housing and one-stop-shop government services. While their journey was perilous and hard (both physically and emotionally), and Israeli government absorption efforts were completely underwhelming, a support system sprung up to pave the way to safety.
Russian Jews, on the other hand, have found themselves completely isolated. Most local community leaders have chosen to stay silent and do not encourage aliyah, out of fear of repercussions from the government.
There is no clear, detailed information about immigration possibilities and routes and people rely on Telegram channels, sharing notes to find out what has worked for others.
Jewish Agency, Israeli government refusing to treat Russian Jews as refugees
The Jewish Agency and the Israeli government are refusing to treat Russian Jews as refugees and provide extra assistance. And above all, the wider Jewish community in Israel and the Diaspora is unaware and apathetic.The prognosis is dire.
Unless we wake up and do everything in our power to assist Russian Jews out of the trap, tens of thousands may find themselves once again behind the Iron Curtain, under a ruthless totalitarian regime.We have only a short window of opportunity to save Russian Jewry. The greatest responsibility falls with the State of Israel.
Israel was established as a safe haven for the Jewish people with a commitment to never again leave any Jew in danger. The current government has failed to live up to its mandate, with potential repercussions of historic proportions.
The current government must use its last days to recognize Russian Jews as refugees fleeing from war and provide them with the same initial assistance, which was given (and justly so) to Ukrainian Jews.
Rescue flights, reopening of absorption centers, and expanded Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Absorption teams would enable Russian Jews to come, while signaling that they are wanted and welcome in the Jewish state, that we have not abandoned them.
The worldwide Jewish community must also do its part. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
If we don’t take the necessary measures now to for an all-out “Let Our People Come” campaign, in just several months we may find ourselves sadly replaying an entirely preventable replica of the ‘70-80s “Let My People Go” movement.
The writer is the director of operations for the Vaad Hatzalah Rescue Committee.