Bennett: Israel’s ‘sacred’ task is to help Jewish Ukrainian refugees above others

PM tells ministerial committee that country must focus on Jews displaced by Russia invasion; interior minister says cap will come soon on entry of non-Jews

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, center, and Aliyah and Integration Minister Tamano-Shata, right, at a meeting of the Ministerial Committee on Aliyah and Integration, March 7, 2022. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, center, and Aliyah and Integration Minister Tamano-Shata, right, at a meeting of the Ministerial Committee on Aliyah and Integration, March 7, 2022. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told ministers on Monday that Israel must focus on helping Jewish refugees escaping the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

His remarks came after his Yamina party No. 2, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, said that Israel will place a cap the entry of Ukrainian refugees who do not have Jewish ties and are therefore ineligible to immigrate to the Jewish state.

“The State of Israel was founded as a state that is the safest place in the world for Jews,” Bennett said at meeting of the Ministerial Committee on Aliyah and Integration, according to a statement from his office. “This is the heart of its purpose; therefore, we will focus on this, of course.”

Israel, he said, “is a refuge for Jews in distress,” citing other waves of Jewish immigration in the past such as that from former Soviet Union countries, Ethiopia, and Yemen.

“This is our purpose. The State of Israel has done this more than once in its history and we will carry out this sacred task this time as well,” he said.

Noting the far-reaching consequences of the conflict, which has rattled Europe, as Russian forces battle to suppress determined Ukrainian resistance to their invasion, Bennett said that so far Israel has mostly taken in non-Jewish refugees. But he stressed that it is the Jewish community that must be helped first.

“We in the State of Israel have absorbed, as of now, hundreds of refugees, some of them Jews, most of them not,” he said. “Naturally, the State of Israel will focus on Jewish refugees.”

Jewish immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine, arrive at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on March 6, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Bennett said the country is facing a “historic opportunity” and that, led by Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, it will focus on two key goals.

The first, he said, was to “to reach Jews in distress, to reach them in the field and make things easier for them,” so that they do not face a tangle of bureaucracy when they arrive in Israel. The second, according to Bennett, would be successful integration into Israeli society, so that those who come will encourage their remaining family members in Ukraine to follow.

Earlier, Interior Minister Shaked said Israel would limit the number of refugees who cannot automatically immigrate to the country — but did not indicate where the limit would be set.

“We will approve some sort of humanitarian cap on people who are not eligible under the Law of Return,” Shaked told Kan public radio on Monday morning. “In the coming days I will formulate an organized policy, because we have to get this situation in order.”

She declined to specify what number of Ukrainian refugees who are not eligible to become citizens Israel would be willing to accept. She is thought to favor  placing the cap on entry as low as possible, while Foreign Minister Yair Lapid reportedly wants Israel to accept a greater number.

The Population and Immigration Authority said Monday morning that since the February 24 outbreak of war, 2,792 Ukrainian nationals have arrived in Israel; 129 of them were denied entry for unspecified reasons.

Throughout the month of February, 3,226 Ukrainians landed in Israel; 248 of them were denied entry and 2,134 exited, the authority said.

Under the Law of Return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible to become an Israeli citizen.

Shaked said that only around 10 percent of those who have entered Israel since the war began are eligible for citizenship. She said that Israel’s primary goal is to absorb fleeing Jews and others who can become citizens, as opposed to all refugees.

“Israel has a huge challenge to absorb those who are eligible under the Law of Return,” she said. “We expect tens of thousands; we could reach hundreds of thousands if a large number come from Russia and other former Soviet nations. That’s our central mission.”

While Ukraine boasts a large Jewish community, it is unclear if such a figure will materialize, and the Jewish Agency has indicated that there does not appear to be a wave of Russian immigration in the works.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, February 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While Israel is focused on preparing for a wave of new immigrants, “of course as a Western nation we will also take in refugees generally,” she said.

Shaked said a new policy would be announced in the coming days, and in the meantime, any Ukrainian refugees who show up in Israel are allowed to enter on a tourist visa after a brief inspection. Currently, Ukrainian refugees without first-degree relatives in Israel must provide a NIS 10,000 deposit, to be returned to them upon exiting.

The deposit is held as a guarantee that the Ukrainians will eventually leave Israel, as the country rarely grants refugee status to non-Jews, and instead allows them temporary entry as tourists. Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, who flew to Poland on Monday, has called for canceling the deposit requirement, calling it “illogical and inhumane.”

Approximately 400 new immigrants from Ukraine — including around 100 orphans — landed in Israel on Sunday on flights from Poland, Moldova and Romania.

The UN estimates that more than 1.5 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia began its invasion last month. The vast majority have exited via Poland, though many have continued onward since.

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