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Interview'We got people out. We saved people'

Aiding Ukrainians, immigration official finds what it means for Israel to be a haven

Head of office that checks citizenship eligibility for Ukrainian immigrants reflects on early days of Russian invasion, vows to abide by whatever coalition decides on Law of Return

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Mark Dovev speaks at a Nativ event in Ukraine on October 10, 2021. (Nativ)
Mark Dovev speaks at a Nativ event in Ukraine on October 10, 2021. (Nativ)

CHISINAU, Moldova — Mark Dovev remembers every minute of the day-long drive from the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, where he’d been based as the head of the regional office for Nativ, to Poland’s capital Warsaw, which served as the new hub for Ukrainian immigration to Israel until they moved again to Moldova.

“On the day I die, there won’t be many things that I remember, but I’ll remember Shabbat, the 26th of February, 2022, forever. It’s the day we left Ukraine for Warsaw. I remember every minute. Every minute. I remember the 40-kilometer (25-mile) line of cars at the border. I remember how we were cursed at, how people tried to give us their babies so we could get them to safety, and how we were attacked on the Polish side of the border. I don’t judge people for how they act when they are in that kind of situation,” Dovev told The Times of Israel, sitting in his office on the seventh floor of a shopping mall in the Moldovan capital, where Israel also keeps its embassy.

“For the first two months of the war, we were working 24/7. You’d go back to your room and keep answering phone calls until 3 a.m. We were almost like refugees ourselves. When we left Ukraine, we left everything behind. I left with a rolling suitcase with enough clothes for four days. I lived with just that for five months,” he said. (The Israeli Embassy in Ukraine was later able to bring the contents of the family’s Dnipro apartment to Moldova.)

For all his adult life, Dovev has worked for the State of Israel, first as a mental health officer in the Israel Defense Forces (he still serves in the reserves), then for Nativ, the government office currently tasked with assessing citizenship eligibility for people from the former Soviet Union, and then for the Jewish Agency, in its “immigration encouragement” office. In 2020, he returned to Nativ, working in the office in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro until the aforementioned evacuation. Serving in Dnipro was a homecoming for Dovev, who was born in the city and moved to Israel at the age of 18 in the mid-1990s.

Though his family fled back to Israel at the start of the war, his wife and two of his five children have returned and live with him in Chisinau. The other three are back in Israel, along with two grandchildren. Though he’s dedicated to his work, life in Chisinau for an observant Orthodox Jewish family isn’t easy. His kids study in a secular, American school because there’s no realistic religious option, and finding kosher food is a daily struggle.

When his contract is up next year, Dovev said he would be honored to stay but also thrilled to return to his home in Israel. “I’m of two minds,” he said.

Though it was emotionally and physically draining, Dovev considers his time helping people immigrate to Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion to be one of the most significant experiences of his life.

“I remember there was one woman who came to us from Kharkov. On her form, nothing was written about her family situation. We asked her. She said, ‘I don’t know. My husband died.’ We asked if she had a death certificate. She said, ‘No, he died five days ago. There was shelling in Kharkov and he was hit. We called an ambulance but it couldn’t come so he died.’ There was no emotion in her voice. Nothing. She was still in shock. That was an extreme case, obviously, but that’s so you can understand what we were dealing with in those months,” he said.

Ukrainian firefighters work on heavily damaged buildings after a Russian rocket attack in the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine, September 6, 2022. (AP/Andrii Marienko)

“It was hard, but we were there for them. The State of Israel was there for them. We got people out. We saved people. I finally understood the concept of Israel being a refuge, far more than I had understood it before,” Dovev added.

The pace of work has slowed considerably since the early days of the war, with just a few dozen people looking to immigrate each week, compared to the hundreds doing so in early 2022. Each day, applicants come to Nativ’s offices with folders filled with Soviet and Jewish documentation: birth certificates, ketubot (religious marriage contracts), death certificates, etc. Some of them are old and rare enough to legitimately warrant being put into museum collections. Dovev recalls an applicant who brought in a ketuba from the late 19th century, but not knowing Hebrew had no idea what it was until he read it aloud and explained.

‘I have no opinion. I have no stance’

The Prime Minister’s Office’s Nativ — not to be confused with the conversion program mostly used by IDF soldiers — has come under greater scrutiny in recent weeks due to a coalition deal that would put far-right lawmaker Avi Maoz, who openly opposes immigration to Israel by those who are not Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, which effectively dictates the country’s immigration policies, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible for Israeli citizenship provided they do not practice another religion.

Outside of the former Soviet Union, potential immigrants generally prove their eligibility for Israeli citizenship with a letter from a rabbi, saying that they are Jewish or that their parent or grandparent is Jewish. As the Soviet regime crushed Jewish life for decades, that type of proof is not necessarily feasible in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the rest of the FSU. Rabbis simply do not have the communal, historical knowledge to know which families are and aren’t Jewish. Instead, Nativ officers are used to determine citizenship eligibility for prospective immigrants from those countries, based on interviews and documentation, with both carrying significant weight.

The Jewish Agency’s Olga Tendler (in black) organizes the new arrivals from Ukraine who want to come to Israel at the JDC/Moldova Jewish community hub in Chisinau, Moldova, March 17, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Dovev stressed that his office, which is responsible for immigration from Ukraine and eastern Europe, does not have a particular agenda regarding immigration to Israel, or aliyah.

“I have no opinion. I have no stance. All I am supposed to determine here, like any Nativ worker, is: Are the documents being presented to me sufficient for the Law of Return? Anyone who tries to say — and there are those who try to say — that Nativ is letting in this kind of person or that kind of person. Nativ operates based on the Law of Return and in accordance with the protocols set by the Interior Ministry. That’s all,” he said.

“We’re not the Rabbinate. We don’t determine Jewishness. We determine if you meet the criteria of the Law of Return,” he said.

Should Maoz demand that Nativ impose new, stricter standards on prospective immigrants in order to dissuade non-Jewish applicants or to keep out borderline cases, Dovev said he and his staff would, of course, follow those protocols as well.

Dovev stressed that Nativ already works dutifully to ensure an applicant is eligible for citizenship and to suss out fraud. Indeed as we spoke, one worker came in to show Dovev such a case: A counterfeit birth certificate. It wasn’t even a particularly good fake, just something produced by a home color printer. He added it to the small pile of such counterfeits in his desk.

“I wouldn’t say it happens often. But it happens,” Dovev said.

Mark Dovev speaks at an event held by the Jewish community of Moldova in Chisinau on October 28, 2022. (Jewish community of Moldova/Facebook)

In addition to a keen eye for forgeries, knowledge of Soviet history is also critical.

“If someone comes in with a birth certificate from Kyiv in 1942 and it says that their parents were Jewish, does that make sense? No! There were Nazis in Kyiv in 1942. If they were listed as being Jewish, they would have been killed on the spot,” he said.

Though there have been calls to shutter Nativ over the years, Dovev said the organization’s workers’ knowledge of both Soviet bureaucracy and history makes them indispensable in parsing whether or not a person is eligible for Israeli citizenship.

“There is no other organization that has amassed the knowledge, ability and experience in determining aliyah eligibility from the former Soviet Union than Nativ,” he said.

“But I’m a civil servant. Whatever decision the government of Israel makes, I will follow,” he said.

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