Perspective 70. Ukrainian Jews Flee to Israel: A New Phenomenon?
Since Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine, an estimated 8371 Ukrainian Jews have sought refuge in Israel, as of April 8. Is this a new departure in Israel's role as a haven for Jewish communities in distress?
No. Not in the least. Apart from the estimated quarter million Ukrainian Jews who left the former Soviet Union when it dissolved and gates opened, the influx of Jewish refugees from these same cities and towns goes back 140 years and is intimately connected with the origins of modern Israel.
In perspective, this is where Zionism began. Consider the following scenario: an autocratic Russian regime in Moscow makes life for Ukrainian Jews so unbearable that huge numbers stream across borders to the west, some finding their way to the Jewish homeland.
This could be 2022, but it is first and foremost 1882 (and in 2022, Russia is making life unbearable for all Ukrainians). After Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, mobs attacked Jewish communities beginning around Easter 1882 (always a favorite time of year for antisemites).
The term "pogrom" ("devastation" in Russian) came into use to describe the massacres that took place in some 250 places -- mainly in Ukraine, where most Jews lived. Since the government forbid mention of the massacres in the press (like Putin today), Jewish newspapers had to employ the euphemism of "Storms in the South".
One hard-hit city was Kharkov (Kharkiv today), where Jewish students, stunned by the violence directed at them, organized a movement (Bilu) advocating a Return to Zion. As similar groups emerged across present-day Ukraine, and even in Moscow, they joined together as "Hovevei Tsion" (Lovers of Zion), and eventually became known as Zionists.
So history repeats itself, but with some variation. Jews arriving in today's Israel will find themselves harassed by the Chief Rabbinate to prove that they are Jewish. The Bilu pioneers who arrived in Palestine in the 1880s faced no such obstacle; in fact they had a better chance of getting in if the Ottoman authorities thought they were not Jewish.
The current MInister of the Interior, Ayelet Shaked (from Prime Minister Bennett's party, Yamina), also wants to welcome mainly those who can prove they are Jewish by Jewish law (that is, born to a Jewish mother). This despite the fact that refugees fleeing a war-torn country aren't always in a good position to obtain birth certificates and other documentation.
Recognizing the frequency of intermarriage, the practice with previous refugees from the former Soviet Union has been to admit anyone with a Jewish father or grandparent, or married to a Jew. Refugees in this category could become citizens (and serve in the army), but were not listed as Jewish on their identity card and could not have a Jewish marriage or a Jewish burial.
Apparently there are also many thousands of Ukrainians, without even this degree of connection, who have arrived in Israel. So will Israel become a refuge for those who need a refuge, whatever their identity? Why not? What a wonderful twist of history: Jews flee Ukraine, over a century later Ukrainians flee to the Jewish state.
And by the way, in the same period there have been 12.593 refugees from Russia itself, pushed out by the hardships brought on by the war. This needs to be seen against the fact that only 7700 came from Russia during the entire year 2021. Once again history does repeat itself.