In Israel, influx of refugees from Ukraine war sparks debate over identity

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NETANYA, Israel — When Russian troops began shooting toward the Ukrainian capital from the forest near Olga Olinichenko’s home, she and her two daughters hid in their basement for nine days. They managed to escape to Poland, but her family’s ordeal drove Olinichenko, who is Jewish, to a decision she had never weighed: applying for Israeli citizenship.

Last month, after officials expedited her application, Olinichenko and her girls landed at the international airport in Tel Aviv, greeted with a red carpet and cheering crowds. “I can eat, I can sleep, my children are okay,” she said, exhaling deeply, from the sun-drenched lobby of a four-star seaside hotel.

Almost 24,000 Ukrainian refugees — approximately a third of whom are Jewish — have arrived in Israel since the Russian invasion of their country on Feb. 24. Israeli officials say the influx may end up being the largest wave of immigration to the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union—an event that helped propel Israeli politics to the right and laid bare the challenges of successfully integrating new arrivals.

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This time, too, the government is struggling with its response as it balances competing demands and pleas. There have been entreaties for compassion, including from Ukraine’s Jewish president and those who argue that Israel, a nation established in the aftermath of the Holocaust, has a moral imperative to help those in need. There have been warnings as well, from right-wing politicians and segments of the public arguing that Israel should not admit non-Jewish refugees in any significant numbers, to preserve the country’s Jewish majority.

Only 44 percent of Israelis say the country should absorb Ukrainian refugees regardless of their religion, according to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute last month. “Some Israelis were concerned that it will be like the exodus from Egypt, that Israel will be overwhelmed with millions of people,” Diaspora Affairs Minister Nahman Shay said in an interview last month in his Jerusalem office. “The truth is that those fears are not justified, that the promised land for most Ukrainians is Germany, Sweden.”

Similar debates have raged here after Israel refused entry to refugees from Syria, Sudan, Eritrea and other countries roiled by war. Palestinians who were made refugees during the establishment of Israel are denied the right to return.

For now, Israel has capped the number of non-Jewish refugees who can be admitted at 5,000, but it has allowed an unlimited number of Ukrainians with relatives in Israel to stay until the hostilities subside. Those who cannot claim Israeli citizenship are given tourist visas and barred from working or from accessing many social benefits. The government has not announced long-term plans for their care in case the war drags on.

Israel has also approved a $6.5 million budget to ultimately absorb 100,000 Jewish Ukrainian immigrants eligible to make “aliyah,” or Israeli naturalization, under the “Law of Return,” which applies to anyone who can prove to have at least one Jewish grandparent. Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano Shata said this month that the government is preparing to receive between 6,000 and 10,000 Ukrainians per month and up to 50,000 by the end of July. She instructed officials to “grant approvals on principle and not delay anyone who wants to come to Israel.”

The shift toward a more permissive policy comes after right-wing Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked sparked a public uproar with a plan to cap the number of non-Jewish refugees. The current policy still bars Ukrainian refugees with no connection to Israel from entering the country. Those arguing for Israel to show more compassion include Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has compared Ukrainian refugees to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during World War II.

Zelensky is part of a community of Jews in Ukraine, some 200,000 strong, with historical and cultural ties to Israel, based on a long legacy of anti-Jewish pogroms and persecution in the country. During World War II, at least 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, according to scholars. In his previous career as a comedian, Zelensky toured clubs across Israel.

In a briefing with Ukrainian reporters this month, Zelensky said he hopes Ukraine will reemerge from the war as a “big Israel” that prioritizes security issues. He has also criticized Israel for rejecting Ukraine’s requests for military equipment and for its stated neutral stance as a mediator between Kyiv and Moscow. “Indifference kills,” Zelensky said in a Zoom speech to Israeli lawmakers last month.

Among Zelensky’s closest advisers are members of Israel’s Russian-speaking community, from which about 1 million people emigrated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. It was the largest wave of Israeli immigration to date, which pushed Israeli politics to the right, boosted the country’s Jewish majority and infused Israel’s then-fledgling economy with a large, highly skilled workforce, said Roman Bronfman, a former Knesset member and author of the book “The Million that Changed the Middle East.”

“Some people say it saved Israel,” Bronfman said.

But Israel, unequipped to handle the unprecedented influx, saw thousands of highly skilled workers such as doctors, engineers and scientists end up as cleaners or security guards and then join the Israeli right. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they bolstered right-wing arguments that Israel could not afford to give back territory to the Palestinians.

The new arrival of Ukrainians has coincided with a resurgence of Israeli-Palestinian violence in recent weeks.

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But Julia Reyfman, an English teacher from Odessa staying in the Netanya hotel hosting Ukrainian immigrants, said she and her teenage son feel the safest since the start of the war back home.

“When I see soldiers on the bus, on the street, I feel more protected than in Ukraine,” she said.

Israelis and immigration analysts say that, with more personal connections and more opportunities to integrate into a more stable politician and more diverse job market, this wave of Ukrainian immigrants has a better chance of succeeding in Israel.

“It’s better today,” said Carmella Sternberg, who came to Israel from Lithuania in the 1970s and is one of the owners of the Netanya hotel. “This group brought an element of surprise, but Israelis actually manage best in moments of emergency.”

Israel’s booming high-tech sector is expected to absorb thousands of Ukrainians, many of whom speak English and are expected to meet a skilled-labor shortage that, before the war, was fulfilled by outsourced employees in Ukrainian cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv. Earlier this month, Israel began a pilot program to fast-track entry permits and 90-day work visas for foreign tech workers with Israeli tech employment contracts.

Natalie Kydlay, a non-Jewish Ukrainian who worked for an Israeli technology company in Kyiv, said she had not taken the time to consider her family’s future in Israel as she recovered from the shock of fleeing Ukraine.

When she left with her husband, an Israeli Ukrainian, and three sons, she packed bags for about two weeks, “thinking it would be something like a summer holiday, to get the kids to a safe place,” she said. She is still focused on returning home rather than starting a new life, she said, spending much of her day sharing news and war-related posts on social media and keeping in contact with her father in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, where many residential areas have been obliterated by the Russian bombardment.

Before meeting her husband, she thought Israel was “the most dangerous place in the world. I would never think about living here,” she said, laughing. “I thought Ukraine was the safest place.”

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