Ukraine, Israel and the latest on the crisis — we answer your questions

Jewish refugees travel out of Ukraine on a bus coordinated by The Jewish Agency, March 2022. (Photo courtesy: The Jewish Agency)

The war in Ukraine continues and several of you, our readers, have reached out on social media asking us questions about the latest developments. Our promise at Unpacked is that “we provide nuanced insights by unpacking all things Jewish,” so we are focusing on the Jewish and Israeli angles of this story (since we’re not experts on the whole situation on the ground).

On the ground in Ukraine: Interview with the Jewish Agency

But first, before we answer your questions, read our interview with Roman Polonsky who is coordinating relief efforts on the ground for Ukrainian Jewish refugees. 

Polonsky is the Jewish Agency’s regional director for the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Germany, and his team is organizing buses for Jewish refugees from Ukraine to the Romanian, Polish, Hungarian and Moldovan borders.

Once the refugees cross the border, the Jewish Agency puts them up in hotels, and provides them with meals, medicine, basic needs, and flights to Israel, Polonsky explained. We spoke with Polonsky when he was in Bucharest, Romania, and asked him about his experience working on the front lines of this crisis. Read about his team’s work and the inspiring stories he shared with us.

What is Israel’s policy on Ukrainian refugees?

Israel’s policy on non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees has been hotly debated throughout the war. Ukrainian Jews (and anyone with a Jewish grandparent) are automatically eligible for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return. But what should Israel’s policy be for Ukrainians who are not eligible under the Law of Return?

Last week, Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced that Israel would temporarily host 20,000 Ukrainians who were already in Israel when the war began, and would not act to evict them. In addition, Israel would grant entry to 5,000 Ukrainian refugees who were not eligible for citizenship, she said.

Then on Sunday, facing criticism of the policy (that Israel should accept a greater number of refugees), Shaked announced that Ukrainians with relatives in Israel would be exempt from the 25,000 entry cap.

“As the Jewish people [who have faced persecution], we understand what refugees are: we also open our hearts and doors to those who are not eligible for citizenship,” Shaked said, announcing the updated policy. But this “must be done to a limited extent,” she added. “We cannot open our gates to everyone.”

Many Israeli politicians have spoken out on the issue. Visiting the Siret border crossing between Ukraine and Romania, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that Israel has “a moral obligation to be part of the international effort to help refugees from Ukraine find a warm home and a bed to sleep in,” adding, “It is our duty not only to be good Jews, but also good people.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed the policy, saying on Monday, “Many Jews want to come to us from the war zones and the people of Israel will embrace them. At the same time, Israel accepts Ukrainians fleeing the danger zone who have relatives in the country. We will allow them to stay here for as long as possible until things have calmed.”

However, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said that the updated policy did not go far enough, and that Israel should accept an even higher number of non-Jewish refugees.

“No other country has imposed limits on refugees,” he said. “This framework is still problematic, and we are again restricting the arrival of refugees and making a distinction between those who have family in Israel and those who do not.”

Meanwhile, Daniel Gordis and Ayelet Oz, CEO of the Israeli organization Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, took a deeper dive into this issue on Gordis’ podcast

When asked what she thought Israel’s refugee policy should be, Oz said, “I’m not saying that Israel should [bring all Ukrainian refugees] from Poland to Israel…but you can leave your door open if people come knocking.”

She added that the idea that huge numbers of non-Jewish Ukrainians would move to Israel (if Israel’s doors were completely open) is unfounded.

“Most refugees, if they have no special connection to Israel, would rather go to Germany or Belgium,” Oz said. “This assumption that, if we open, we’ll be flooded with refugees, there’s actually no basis for that and the numbers don’t point to that risk.”

Gordis replied that another reason why Israel ought to accept more Ukrainians is to remind Israelis of why the Jewish state was created in the first place.

Israel “was created in large measure because we knew what it was like not to be wanted anywhere,” Gordis said. “If you go back to World War II…you have to remember that America and Canada’s borders were closed, and Palestine was closed by the British. There was literally nowhere to go.”

Part of the “historical consciousness” of Israel is to welcome refugees because “we know what it’s like,” Gordis added.

Is Israel mediating an end to the war?

It appears Israel is taking a leading role in mediating an end to the war. According to reports, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has taken on a “messenger” or intermediary role between Ukraine and Russia, communicating proposals on behalf of the two countries. It seems that Bennett is the only world leader who has spoken directly to both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

On Monday, Bennett reportedly had a 90-minute phone conversation with Putin. The call came a day after Bennett spoke to Zelensky, who proposed Jerusalem as a possible spot to hold in person negotiations with Russia.

This is not the first time Bennett has talked to both sides. In a rather dramatic move, the Orthodox prime minister broke Shabbat two weeks ago and traveled to Moscow to have a face-to-face meeting with Putin. Bennett then talked to Zelensky by phone and traveled to Berlin to meet with Western leaders.

The diplomatic situation is very fluid and there is a lot of misinformation on social media about Israel’s role. For example, a media report falsely accused Bennett of demanding that Zelensky surrender to Putin. That prompted a sharp response from the Ukrainian president’s office which has been thanking Israel for their continued role in mediating talks.

The Biden administration also thanked Israel for its role in the talks. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid last week, “We appreciate all efforts by friends and allies to look for a diplomatic resolution.”

Lapid responded to Blinken: “We have condemned the Russian invasion, and we still do….and Israel is a partner in the global effort to make sure and verify that this war must be stopped.”

Despite taking on the role of mediator, Israel is not taking a neutral stance against Russia and voted at the United Nations to condemn the invasion. Lapid also said this week that the Jewish state would not open its doors to Russian oligarchs seeking to bypass international sanctions.

What is Putin’s relationship with Jews? What is Jewish life like in Russia?

Putin is Russian Orthodox, and under his reign, he has supported limited religious freedoms in Russia (despite trying to bring religious denominations more under state control).

Today, the Jewish community of Russia is closely monitored, and rabbis are not free to speak out or condemn Russian actions, or espouse positions that go against the government’s official lines.

Polish authorities announced last week that they “assisted a Russian rabbi who is in opposition to Putin to leave Europe to reach Israel.”

Russia’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, said in 2011 that Putin “paid great attention to the needs of our community and related to us with a deep respect.”

But the Russian president is also not beyond playing politics with the Jews. According to Haaretz, in July 2021, Putin denied “Ukrainians’ existence as a distinct national group…insisting that just like Jewish communities around the world, ‘Russians and Ukrainians are a single people.’”

Speaking during his annual televised call-in show, in which the authoritarian leader fields questions from citizens, Putin declared that “the single Russian people” had been divided “under the influence of external factors” and that while “the current authorities of modern Ukraine are clearly unfriendly to us,” this does not mean that the two people are not one.

“See for yourself,” he said. “The Jews come to Israel from Africa, Europe, and other countries. Black people arrive from Africa, right? Those arriving from Europe speak Yiddish, rather than Hebrew. Although they are diverse, the Jewish people, nevertheless, cherished its unity.”

Ukraine’s Jewish president responded in a statement, saying, Russians and Ukrainians are “definitely not one people.”

How many Jewish refugees have been evacuated?

Ukraine is home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities and its historical roots run deep. It is the birthplace of some of Judaism’s most distinctive ideologies and traditions — the Hasidic movement emerged out of Ukraine, and the country has a rich legacy of Yiddish culture.

Today, it’s hard to calculate Ukraine’s Jewish population accurately and estimates range from 49,000 to 400,000, and like everyone in the country, they are in danger.

Already the Jewish communities of Uman and Odessa have been evacuated, but many more people are stuck in the war zone, including the capital Kyiv.

Hundreds of Jewish refugees have already made their way to Israel and 15,000 could arrive by the end of March, according to Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. Israel has also pledged to take in an additional 25,000 non-Jewish refugees.

What do the people of Ukraine need and how can you help?

Right now access to basic supplies is limited, and shortages of goods are reported across Ukraine. Further complicating relief efforts is the shutdown of transportation due to a swell of refugees trying to make their way away from the fighting.

Several Jewish organizations, along with the Israeli government, are on the ground coordinating efforts.

  • The Jewish Agency is helping to evacuate people out of Ukraine and give them lodging, and has opened a hotline for assistance. 
  • HIAS is working with NGOs in place in Ukraine to provide assistance to refugees.
  • United Hatzalah is coordinating with its Ukraine chapter to get people out of areas where there is fighting and to provide medical assistance to those who are injured.
  • JDC is on the ground in Ukraine providing meals to the elderly and children.

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