Why Israel’s Ukraine refugee policy is so controversial

"The prophetic vision of the Jewish people’s return to their homeland was not merely one of security and comfort…Part of Jewish nationhood is a sense of responsibility for the world."
Ukrainian refugees arrive in Israel on March 6, 2022. (Photo courtesy: The Jewish Agency)

We’re curious…

Is the Jewish state meant to be responsible just for the Jewish people, or should it be responsible for any vulnerable group of people? What is the ultimate purpose of the Jewish state? Those big questions are at the heart of a debate right now in Israel over whether to accept non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees, how many the country should take in and whether there should be limits at all.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes, making this the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II, according to the United Nations. Photos and videos of refugees fleeing the war, and families being separated at the border, have captured the world’s attention.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, anyone who has a Jewish grandparent can automatically receive citizenship in Israel, meaning that all Ukrainians with a Jewish grandparent can move to Israel. 

Approximately 12,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Israel since the start of the war; of those, about 4,000 are considered Jewish under the Law of Return, according to the Israeli government. But what about Ukrainians who don’t have a Jewish grandparent? As the fighting continues, is Israel responsible for taking them in too?

Israel’s policy on Ukrainian refugees

Israel’s policy on admitting non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees has been a topic of debate for weeks. On March 8, Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced that Israel would grant entry to 5,000 Ukrainian refugees who were not eligible for citizenship. In addition, she said, the Jewish state would temporarily host 20,000 Ukrainians who were already in Israel when the war began (i.e., Israel would not act to evict them).

The announcement sparked a public outcry from Israelis who argued that Israel should accept a greater number of refugees. A few days later, Shaked responded to this criticism and announced that all Ukrainians who are relatives of Israelis would be exempt from the 5,000-person 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, she added, this “must be done to a limited extent. We cannot open our gates to everyone.”

Critics argue that the new policy still does not go far enough, and that the cap should be raised even more — or that the state should accept Ukrainian refugees without limits. According to the Israeli government, as of March 13, Israel had reached half of the 5,000 person quota of Ukrainians who are not eligible under the Law of Return and who are not relatives of Israelis.

Israel: A nation of refugees

One person who believes that Israel should accept more refugees is author Daniel Gordis. Israel “was created in large measure because we knew what it was like not to be wanted anywhere,” Gordis said on his podcast. “If you go back to World War II…we have to remember that America’s borders were closed 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 this country is that we know what it’s like” to be refugees “and we’re not going to let it happen” to others, Gordis said.

What happened during World War II? In the years following the Nazis’ rise to power in 1932, over half the Jews living in Germany and its surrounding countries fled or were expelled. Many Jews were unable to find countries willing to take them in.

In 1938, delegates from 32 countries met in Evian, France to address the escalating problem of Jewish refugees. Delegates from each country expressed sympathy for the state of the Jews. But few countries offered to admit more refugees. Days later, the “final solution to the Jewish problem” was conceived. And soon, the night closed in. To learn more about the Evian Conference, watch our video, “Faces of the Holocaust: The Bystander.”

For Gordis, the Jewish people know what it’s like to have nowhere to go — therefore, the Jewish state has a special responsibility to take in refugees. But others take away a different central message from this history and what it means for the role of the Jewish state: “Because the Jewish people had nowhere to go, Israel must always be a refuge for the Jewish people.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett articulated this view in an interview with The New York Times. Bennett talked about the devastating pogrom (anti-Jewish riot) that took place in Kishinev (modern-day Moldova) in 1903, in which 49 Jews were killed. 

The pogrom in Kishinev “was a very central event that drove modern Zionism,” Bennett said. “In the same Kishinev, right now, we’re saving Jews. The raison d’être of Israel is to be a safe haven for every Jew in danger. We didn’t have it in 1903. We have it now.”

Natan Sharansky expressed a similar idea in a Jewish Journal op-ed: “When I was a child, ‘Jew’ was shorthand for evil, for loser. No one envied us. Today on the Ukrainian border, the same word ‘Jew’ is…a passport to freedom, and it describes people who have a place to go and know that there is an entire people who are their family, waiting for them.”

Is Israel responsible for just the Jewish people or for the entire world?

These different perspectives raise a basic question: Is Israel responsible for just the Jewish people, or is it responsible for the entire world? This debate did not just emerge with the war in Ukraine and the current refugee crisis — it has been going on ever since Israel’s founding, and even earlier than that.

In his essay, “Auto-Emancipation” in 1882, Zionist leader Leon Pinsker wrote that a future Jewish state ought to be a safe haven for the Jewish people:

“In order to build a secure home [and] end our endless life of wandering…we must first determine…what country is accessible to us, and at the same time suitable to offer the Jews of all lands who must leave their homes a secure and undisputed refuge, capable of flourishing.”

But Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that Israel must be more than a safe haven for Jews in need: “Israel cannot just be a refuge. If it is to survive as a valid nation, it has to be much, much more,” he said.

The Jewish state ought to be judged “by the human values determining its inner and outward relations; and by its fidelity, in thought and act, to the supreme behest: ‘And you shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” Ben-Gurion also said.

Similarly, Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern political Zionism, wrote that the Jewish state should contribute to the whole world: “Whatever we attempt to accomplish there for our welfare, will have its powerful effect, promoting the happiness and well-being of all Mankind.”

In the past, Israel has acted on its responsibility for Jews around the world (assisting with search and rescue efforts after the Surfside tragedy, for example), and its responsibility for other groups (setting up a hospital in Haiti after a devastating earthquake and providing medical care for thousands of Syrian civilians during the country’s civil war).

Do Ukrainians really want to move to Israel?

Those who support limiting the number of non-Jewish Ukrainians Israel takes in argue that their immigration would threaten the Jewish character of the state, and the need to maintain a Jewish majority. Others point out the practical difficulties of absorbing massive amounts of new immigrants in a short period of time.

But others contend that the number of non-Jewish Ukrainians who plan to move to Israel is pretty small — and that it certainly would not change Israel’s Jewish demographics in a meaningful way.

“Most refugees, if they have no special connection to Israel, would rather go to Germany or Belgium,” Ayelet Oz, CEO of the Israeli organization Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, 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.”

Humanitarian aid for all Ukrainians

Meanwhile, in Ukraine and the bordering countries, Israeli aid groups like United Hatzalah of Israel and IsraAID are providing medical support to all Ukrainians, Jewish or not. Israel also began work on a field hospital in Ukraine over the weekend, and it is scheduled to open today.

The hospital includes a pediatric ward, maternity ward, emergency room and telemedicine facility, and is staffed by 60 healthcare workers from Israel.

Balancing responsibilities

So, what’s the answer to this moral dilemma? Should Israel open its doors to all Ukrainians or just the ones with Jewish grandparents? Here’s how Israeli Rabbi Yaakov Nagen answered that question:

“Certainly, the primary role of the Jewish state is to be a haven for the Jewish people in our homeland, for us to be free to guide our destiny and allow it to unfold. But the prophetic vision of the Jewish people’s return to their homeland was not merely one of security and comfort, but also one of global leadership and national responsibility…Part of Jewish nationhood is a sense of responsibility for the world…

A balance must be found between promoting values and ideals on the global arena and protecting our national interests, which is a moral imperative in its own right. But 74 years after the birth of Israel, we must raise the question: have we found that proper balance? Are we even searching for it? Do ethical concerns factor into our international relations, or is the parochial interest alone guiding our relations with the world?”

The bottom line

As Israelis continue to debate the role of the Jewish state in the world, and what the balance of its responsibility should be, let’s look at this from the perspective of history as well. Being a Jew in Ukraine once meant having nowhere to go, and today, there is a Jewish state that is in a position to be a safe haven for the Jewish world and ensure the Jewish people have the insurance policy they never had. And to do even more than that: to punch above its weight, and help other Ukrainians as well.