In response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Israel is gearing up for another large wave of immigration. According to Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and acting chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, there is a realistic possibility that “there will be tens of thousands of new olim”—Jewish immigrants—“in Israel from Russia and Ukraine within two months.” Israel’s Law of Return allows Jews around the world to immigrate there, and Hagoel noted that there are currently an estimated 200,000 Jews in Ukraine who are eligible.
By the third week in March, some 15,200 Ukrainians had already come to Israel since the war began. But according to Israel’s Interior Ministry, at least two-thirds of them are not Jewish according to the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to anyone who is Jewish or has at least one Jewish parent or grandparent. It is estimated that another 20,000 Ukrainian non-Jews were already in Israel illegally or on tourist visas before Russia’s invasion.
In the 1990s, more than one million people immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return. These immigrants changed Israel politically, economically, culturally and socially, and a new wave of Jewish immigrants could bring about more dramatic changes. Yet most of the public’s attention is focused on the government’s policies toward non-Jewish Ukrainians trying to come to Israel and the disparities between the policies for Jews and non-Jews.
For Jewish immigrants, extensive support systems are in place: With help from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Israel is expediting eligibility checks, so that those who wish to immigrate can get on planes faster. Israel’s Ministry of Immigration and Integration has already established a national task force on immigration from Ukraine and Russia. Ukrainians arriving in Israel under the Law of Return will receive a one-time grant of 6,000 shekels (approximately $1,800), in addition to the immigration basket of financial assistance, which includes housing benefits, tax exemptions and many other benefits. Since these immigrants immediately become Israeli citizens, they will also be entitled to Israel’s comprehensive national health services. To provide immediate housing, the ministry has rented thousands of hotel rooms and has begun to prepare public housing. Ministry teams are already working on programs for university students, schools are enrolling children and teenagers, and even kindergartens are being set up. Hotlines are providing emotional and therapeutic support.
In contrast, as the refugee crisis mounted, Israel’s right-wing Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced highly restrictive policies toward non-Jews. She has since relaxed most of those decisions, but each time only after public and political pressure.
Initially, Shaked announced that Israel would take in up to 5,000 non-Jewish refugees on a temporary basis—which effectively meant Israel would take in very few, since several thousand had already arrived.
After a public outcry, Shaked amended the guidelines, saying that Ukrainian citizens with second-degree relatives could enter the country, but only after putting down a 10,000-shekel (more than $3,200) deposit that would be returned only after the Ukrainian refugee left. The deposit requirement was also subsequently canceled.
At this time, it appears that there is no quota under this arrangement. But an official from the Interior Ministry, speaking with Moment on condition of anonymity, would not say if there is a quota for Ukrainians who do not have relatives in Israel and, if so, what it is. According to social media reports, Israeli officials in Poland and Moldova, where most of the refugees have gathered, are not allowing any Ukrainians without relatives to board airplanes to Israel.
Ukrainians who arrive in Israel without qualifying for the Law of Return receive only a three-month tourist visa, which does not allow them to work. They do not receive any social benefits or health benefits. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz has said that he intends to raise the issue with the government, but to date, these refugees have to purchase private health insurance.
At the end of three months, the Interior Ministry will decide whether to extend the refugees’ stay or to send them back to Europe. Shaked has also said that if the fighting continues and the refugees do remain in Israel, the government will reconsider whether to provide them with benefits and allow them to work.
Legally, it is not clear if Shaked will be able to maintain these policies. Israel was an initiator of and signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, which prohibits deporting refugees to their countries of origin and mandates that “contracting states shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory the same treatment with respect to public relief and assistance as is accorded to their nationals.” This also means that Israel will not be able to deport Ukrainians who were in Israel illegally before the war; under the principle of “non-refoulement,” people cannot be deported to a country where their lives are at risk.
In late March, a court ordered Israel’s Population Authority not to deport any Ukrainian refugees without giving them 48 hours to appeal the ruling. In an interim injunction, Tel Aviv District Court Judge Michal Agmon Gonen also ruled that the state must inform every Ukrainian refugee, in their own language, that they are entitled to consult with an attorney and to appeal a decision to deport them.
Additionally, according to the Israel Democracy Institute, the gap between the generous policies toward those who come to Israel under the Law of Return and the policies toward all others will be difficult to defend if any refugees or the human rights groups aiding them petition the courts. And if the tens of thousands of Jews eligible under the Law of Return choose not to come, Israel will be unable to prove that it has surpassed its own capacity to absorb refugees.
Finally, the requirement for advanced registration prior to boarding a flight for Israel is a de-facto demand for a visa, and this violates Israel’s no-visa-required bilateral agreement with Ukraine. The official at the Interior Ministry told Moment that “refusing Ukrainian citizens could become a problem—but we think that the Ukrainians might be too busy to deal with this, at least for a while.”
Shaked has vigorously defended these policies, citing the need to preserve Israel’s Jewish identity and warning that Israel would be “overwhelmed by non-Jews who will change the character of the country.” She also noted that since Israel is not capping the number of Jews fleeing from Ukraine, Israel will probably proportionately take in more refugees than any other country. However, she has received little support even within her own government, and she was publicly criticized by ministers from most of the parties that make up the coalition.
Diaspora Minister Nahman Shai called Shaked’s policies toward non-Jews “shameful,” saying that Israel must focus on “the values of the State of Israel, because without them this is not a Jewish state…Israel must take a broader and more active role in the humanitarian effort to rescue Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war. This is the ethical and human act which we must carry out.”
Among the Israeli public, 76 percent of Jewish respondents think that Israel should prioritize humanitarian aid for Jews and are satisfied with Israel’s policies regarding the Right of Return, according to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute. However, a substantial minority—44 percent—support the absorption of refugees regardless of nationality. There are major differences between the political camps among Jewish Israelis: Among left-wing respondents, 74 percent support open immigration, compared with only 60 percent of centrists and 31 percent of right-wing respondents. There are also differences between Jewish sects: Support for an open-border policy falls at 6 percent among the ultra-Orthodox, 20 percent among the national religious, 35 percent among the traditional religious, 35 percent among the nonreligious traditional, and 60 percent among the secular.
The question has quickly evolved in the media into a debate over the meaning of Zionism and the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Matan Peleg, CEO of the right-wing group Im Tirzu, has warned that, “post-Zionists in Israel and abroad are engaged in a widespread campaign to undermine the Jewish character of the state by opening Israel’s border to tens of thousands of non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees.” This, he added, “would be a crime against Zionism and Shaked must not surrender.”
But Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, said on a podcast that, at least to some extent, being a Jew must entail a “universalist consciousness.” “We have become hard-hearted since the Holocaust,” and since then Jews have prioritized the need to care “for their own,” he said. “I am appalled at the policy expressions of this hard-heartedness, such as seeing the Ukrainian refugees as a demographic problem.”