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Israel Ramping Up Its Efforts to Attract Jewish Ukrainian Refugees

Concerned about the large numbers of Jewish Ukrainians who are opting to settle in Germany, Israel's government plans to reach out personally to persuade them otherwise in a major new campaign

Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata and Defense Minister Benny Gantz welcome Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Israel at the Ben Gurion International Airport, in March.

Israel is set to launch a new campaign to woo Jewish Ukrainian refugees who have relocated to countries other than Israel or are considering doing so, announced Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata on Monday.

An organization affiliated with the ministry has begun drawing up lists of Ukrainians eligible for aliyah, or immigration to Israel, the minister said. The organization plans to reach out to these Ukrainians personally in the hope of convincing them to choose Israel over other destinations.

The government and the Jewish Agency are particularly concerned about the relatively large number of Jewish Ukrainan refugees who are choosing to settle, at least temporarily, in Germany.

“We know the benefits Israel offers new immigrants can’t always compete with those of a country like Germany,” Tamano-Shata said at a press conference called to mark 40 days since the recent immigration wave from Ukraine began.

When the Russian invasion began in late February, the government’s working assumption had been that Ukrainian refugees eligible for aliyah would naturally choose Israel over other destinations. That hasn’t necessarily been the case, however, and Germany has drawn an especially large share of these refugees.

Israel's National Security Council is in the process of tabulating the exact number of Jewish Ukrainian refugees who have ended up in other European countries, relying on data collected from the local Jewish communities, Tamano-Shata said.

“But according to preliminary indications, we can already say that Israel has drawn more refugees than any other country,” she said.

Since the war began, 7,000 Ukrainian refugees who are either eligible for aliyah or have already been approved for aliyah have landed in Israel, the minister said. She said another 5,000 had gone to Germany – “and that is no small number” – with smaller cohorts heading elsewhere.

A recent Haaretz investigation found that Jewish refugees from Ukraine were often choosing Germany over Israel because they already have a built-in support system there: Nearly 90 percent of Germany’s quarter-million Jews are Russian speakers, about half of them having originated from Ukraine. Many of those refugees favoring Germany also cited their reluctance to move to another war zone. And Jewish refugees are entitled to special benefits in Germany.

In late February, the Jewish Agency set up a hotline for Ukrainians to ask questions about aliyah. The plan now is to call back all of the many Ukrainians who contacted the hotline but never followed through with starting the aliyah process, as well as to reach out to Jewish refugees who have settled either temporarily or permanently in other European countries. The aim will be to encourage these refugees to immigrate to Israel and to assess whether those still in Ukraine need special assistance getting out of the country.

According to the ministry, 3,200 Russians and 150 Belarusians have landed in Israel since the beginning of the war as well – all either eligible for aliyah or already approved for immigration. Out of this total, 60 percent came as immigrants and the rest were allowed, in a special exception due to the war, to complete the aliyah process only after arriving in Israel.

Tamano-Shata estimated between 30,000 and 50,000 immigrants would arrive in Israel from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus by the end of June. “I believe this is a reasonable goal,” she said.

According to the Law of Return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent – along with his or her immediate family members – is eligible to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship. An estimated 200,000 Ukrainians meet that criterion, although fewer than 50,000 of them are halakhically Jewish, or children of Jewish mothers. That means the vast majority would not be considered Jewish by the religious establishment in Israel and so would not be permitted to wed in the country or be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Tamano-Shata said she will be heading a delegation to Ukraine, scheduled to leave on Tuesday, that will investigate other ways of boosting aliyah from the country. The delegation will include representatives of the Jewish Agency, Keren Hayesod (the Israeli government’s fundraising arm) and Nativ, the organization that determines eligibility for aliyah in the former Soviet bloc countries.

About half of those who have arrived since the beginning of the war, said the minister, are being put up in hotels at the government’s expense.


(c) 2022, Haaretz Daily Newspaper

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