‘They Need Everything’: Some 10,000 Ukrainian Jews Could Make Aliyah, Says Jewish Agency
As the war in Ukraine enters its seventh day and with many thousands of Jews among those who have become refugees, Israel will be the destination of a wave of as many as 10,000 new immigrants from the country, according to estimates by the Jewish Agency.
“Our initial estimation was that the first wave of Aliyah to be approximately 3,000 people. Now we think this will be much, much higher, maybe even 10,000 new Olim,” Roman Polonsky, the Jewish Agency’s regional director of former Soviet Union countries, Eastern Europe and Germany told reporters during a Wednesday briefing. “Right now, all our efforts are only in one direction: to save Jewish lives.”
“Over the past week, I didn’t sleep more than three or four hours a day, in order to just somehow run our operations in Ukraine, not only me, the whole Jewish Agency, all of us,” said Polonsky, who was born in a small town near Odessa.
Polonsky said that the emergency hotline center for Ukrainian Jews, opened by the Jewish Agency together with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) at the outbreak of the war, has been flooded in recent days with thousands of calls and requests.
An initial group of 300 Jewish Olim — the Hebrew term for immigrants to Israel — is set to arrive in Israel on Sunday via three flights from Warsaw, Moldova and Romania, according to the Jewish Agency.
“We have received more than 7,000 calls since we opened the hotline.” Polonsky reported. “Among these calls, I can say that 5,000 were about the ability to make Aliyah,” using the Hebrew term for immigrating to the Jewish state.
There are an estimated 200,000 people in the Ukraine who are eligible to make Aliyah and apply for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return.
To deal with the expected surge in demand and help those seeking to emigrate due to the conflict, the Jewish Agency has opened six Aliyah processing stations along the Ukrainian border in Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary. The stations are operated together with Nativ, an Israeli government liaison office responsible for the eligibility of new immigrants from former Soviet bloc countries, as well as the prime minister’s office, to secure visas.
“We send our shlichim [Israeli emissaries] to the borders, and we equip them with diplomatic passports,” Polonsky said. “We have extended our operations in Ukraine, so we now have 90 local workers, who are deployed in major cities in Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv, Dnipro, and in the periphery as well.”
Last Saturday, the first group of Olim crossed from Ukraine into Poland with the help of Jewish Agency emissaries, to be housed in temporary hotels until their voyage to Israel.
“We are helping Jewish communities to organize buses to the border and then at the border, we help them to cross the border and accommodate them in the neighboring countries. People sometimes have only two bags, with a cat or a dog on their laps. They need everything: they need clothes, medicine, and food,” Polonsky noted. “We are trying to provide them with all they need for their health, including also psychological health and medicine, if it is needed.”
The first group consisted of women, children and elderly men and women, as Ukraine has prohibited men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country, instead drafting them into the war effort against Russian forces.
“It creates segregation,” he recounted. “Many families have to make their choice and split.”
Polonsky, who will be traveling to Budapest on Friday to assist at border crossings, described the Aliyah process for some as “very painful.”
“Some of the people who fled their country, their homes, didn’t prepare all these documents they need in order to get their visa. Others don’t have an international passport,” he said. “Some are in the middle of preparations, and they have to accomplish some documents.”
“But you can probably understand that in this chaos, which now is in Ukraine, it’s very difficult to get all these documents, and we are in constant discussions with the prime minister’s office, how we can help these people and how we can maybe broaden a little bit the criteria,” Polonsky added.
Israel’s Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked on Wednesday rebuffed claims by Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel that the nation has refused entry to dozens of refugees seeking shelter from the war.
“As of this morning, 97 passengers from different countries around the world have arrived in Israel with a Ukrainian passport, of which only two were turned away,” Shaked tweeted. “One passenger came from Georgia with a borrowed identity and the other came from Poland for immigration purposes, both of whom returned to the country from which they arrived in accordance with international aviation rules.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he spoke with Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and they “agreed that our entire policy regarding the absorption of Ukrainian citizens will be a broader one.”
Polonsky said that the Jewish Agency fears that if a food shortage arises in Ukraine, there will be a risk of looting and vandalism.
“We are going to distribute $1.5 million for security needs of these Jewish communities,” he said. “We also distributed satellite telephones for Jewish communities and for our shlichim in the case that there will be no communication in Ukraine.”