Can Israel Cope With the Immigrant Wave From Russia’s War on Ukraine, Jews and non-Jews Alike?

Op-eds / Israel and Europe

Three decades after the fall of the Soviet empire, and in the wake of Russia’s invasion, Israel is once again facing a significant spike in Jewish immigration from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. It will also face a sizable number of Ukrainian refugees, staying more temporarily with Israeli friends and relatives.

The big question is whether Israel has learnt from its mistakes and successes in absorbing the massive aliyah wave of the 1990’s, following the break up of the Soviet Union – and whether Israel’s current government has the capacity and the political will to make crucial decisions about welcoming and integrating these new citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

For now, what is more apparent is the lack of a clear policy on both immigration and refugees. As too often happens in Israel, decisions are taken either because of immediate political pressure or out of dire necessity, when the problem has already grown from manageable proportions into something much more critical and uncontrolled.

As planes with new olim (immigrants) and refugees are already landing at Ben-Gurion Airport from Poland, Romania and Russia, Israel must use the little time left to formulate a new policy that will benefit both the newcomers and the state.

Unlike the new olim, who get identity cards and the right to social and medical care on arrival (or after completing standard bureaucratic procedures at the Nativ immigration office), refugees are not currently entitled to any medical plan, schooling, nor do they have the right to work. This is the “policy” formulated by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked regarding refugees with relatives in Israel.

But with these severe limitations, why would the term “refugee” even be used?

According to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees (ratified by Israel) and its 1967 Protocol, member states are obliged to establish and maintain a national asylum system and to create or authorize competent national authorities to establish a framework for refugee protection. Since health, according to the Convention, is a fundamental human right for all, refugees should have access to the same or similar healthcare as host populations. Today, the government, bowing to pressure, announced refugees over 60 will get full medical cover; other will have access to first aid and emergency medicine.

If refugees won’t be able to get medical treatment, to send their kids to kindergarten or school or to earn their bread (or get financial aid from the government), how are they expected to survive?

If Israel’s government wants to prevent a deep social crisis involving refugees in a few months’ time, it had better rethink its core refugee policy in its entirety. There is also little doubt that Israel needs to increase its working population, and that it is fully capable of finding a solution to the questions of medical care and education to those who will stay in Israel.

Instead of fighting about whether a third degree cousin is “family” enough to take care of a Ukrainian refugee, Israel must look at this issue from entirely different lens, using humanitarian optics and avoiding another traumatizing social crisis among the new refugee population.

The situation of new olim who become full Israeli citizens after their documents are endorsed by the immigration authorities, under the Law of Return, is much better than that of non-Jewish refugees, as they are entitled to an array of services known as the “absorption basket”: Hebrew ulpan, medical care etc.

However, everyone who remembers the massive wave of aliyah back in the 1990s easily recalls how immigrants with academic backgrounds and solid working experience were forced into lower-qualification work as house cleaners, street sweepers and care for the elderly.

Israel’s economy is much stronger and better developed than 30 years ago, and the aliyah from all three countries will probably not end up with the same one-million strong wave. However, even today Israel is still clueless about fully respecting and positively exploiting the tremendous human capital that it will now receive.

Serving in the Knesset between 2015-2019, I met with many new olim from Russia and Ukraine. Many had vast business experience (far more rare in Israel 30 years ago) and had reasonable plans about how to establish their business in Israel. What they lacked was an understanding of the Israeli business culture, the right contacts and steady governmental support.

Lacking incentives and a helping hand in their new home, many eventually continued to win their bread by working in Russia, unable to break the language barrier or to become part of the Israeli business bubble.

Today, as Putin’s vicious war against Ukraine continues, and with the concurrent, massive wave of Western sanctions, this is not an option anymore. Most have left their countries penniless. Some are still unable to use their Israeli bank accounts due to sanctions. Some are “returning citizens,” who immigrated to Israel but went back to live in Ukraine or in Russia. Some have experience in high-tech, many others come from a business or arts background.

Israel must have a strategy to make the maximum use of these people’s skills and knowledge for their mutual benefit: Israel does not have enough teachers, doctors, engineers and has shortfalls in many other professions. It’s essential to formulate an employment plan for new olim and to offer a steady and significant help for small and medium to include not only special loans, but also workshops, mentorships and other forms of aid – managed by business veterans, not lifelong bureaucrats.

As for scientists, experts and researchers, Israel should revive its three decades old plan of “scientific incubators,” where newcomers will be able to continue their research or contribute to existing research in areas of national priority. The goal must be not only helping the new olim to survive, but to put them on fast track of employment and adaptation.

Needless to say, Israel must immediately boost the staff responsible for the care of olim and extend their office working hours. Already today there are excruciatingly long lines that every immigrant must brave, from the interior ministry to the immigration offices to the absorption ministry and more. It is absurd how few social workers are fluent in the languages that olim and refugees speak: In 2018 there was one fluent social worker for 1000 immigrants who spoke that language.

The government must raise the budget for ERAN – psychological first aid – and improve the service they offer in various languages: Many of today’s immigrants have escaped from horrific experiences and need help coping with the trauma.

Last but not least, there is the core issue of state and religion. As thousands of immigrants pour into Israel, the number of non-Jewish citizens of Israel will grow as well. Non-Jewish family members and patrilineal Jews will become Israelis, and soon they will find out that they and their children can’t get married in Israel, and that even the option of conversion (to those who want it) is almost unattainable.

Policy makers in government must realize that there is no time like today to formulate a policy to fully integrate and answer the needs of non-Jewish Israelis who have made and will make Israel their home, and who made aliyah according to the Law of Return. The 400,000 non-Jews who came in the 1990s are likewise here to stay. Some members of Israel’s government understand this very well. Now they just have to convince the rest.

The op-ed was published in Haaretz in March 2022.

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