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Israel media review

Give me your huddled (Jewish) masses: What the press says about refugees and Ukraine

The media looks at Israel’s ham-fisted policies for dealing with Ukrainian refugees, especially non-Jews; pundits see Israel-Iran in Ukraine-Russia; and a rabbinical great dies

Illustrative: Ukrainian Jews who fled the Russian invasion are seen at Chisinau International Airport in Moldova as they make their way to Israel, March 6, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ukrainian Jews who fled the Russian invasion are seen at Chisinau International Airport in Moldova as they make their way to Israel, March 6, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

1. Don’t get to live like a refugee: Israel’s news outlets are intensely following the crisis in Ukraine, and, lucky for them, don’t need to look far to find ways to wedge a local angle into coverage of the conflict — from refugees to mediation to seeing Israel in Ukraine’s struggles and the tug-of-war between Russia and the West.

  • While European countries deal with charges of racism for being more willing to take in white Ukrainians than darker-skinned people from Asia or Africa fleeing the same fighting (not to mention their unwillingness to take in Syrians, Kurds, Iraqis, Afghanis, Iranians and others in the past), Israel is facing criticism at home both for failing to take in enough refugees and treat them right, and for taking in too many refugees when Jews should be given priority.
  • Damn skippy, I’m giving preference to Jews* over other Ukrainians, immigration bureau head Tomer Moskovitz told Yedioth Ahronoth last week. (*shorthand for anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent and thus eligible for citizenship, regardless of actual religious affiliation).
  • “They say I discriminate among refugees? I say openly that I discriminate. Israel needs to discriminate for the benefit of those eligible to immigrate. That’s why it was created,” he says in comments plastered on that newspaper’s front page Thursday.
  • But according to Israel Hayom, “The numbers speak for themselves.”
  • “It’s easier to get to Israel as a refugee than as an oleh,” blared the top front page headline of the paper on Friday, using a Hebrew word that refers to a Jewish immigrant to Israel.
  • “The Jewish state has opened its doors to Ukrainians whoever they may be while in countries neighboring Ukraine, more than 10,000 people are waiting for permission to immigrate [under the Law of Return.]”
  • According to the paper, citing figures it says were compiled from information from the Jewish Agency, the Joint, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, over 7,400 Ukrainian refugees with no immigration rights have come to Israel as refugees since the war started, along with just under 3,700 Jews also fleeing the war. Aside from the 10,000 it says are waiting in Eastern and Central Europe, another 5,000 have made their way to Germany and Western Europe, but are being dissuaded from applying to move to Israel due to the “long wait.”
  • Haaretz’s lead editorial Sunday compiles Moskowitz’s comments to Yedioth and other even less PC comments he has made about not taking in refugees, and calls for him to be fired: “Another person in Moskowitz’s position, a person who is not blinded by hatred of foreigners and understands that his role is to provide protection to people fleeing disaster, could have handled things completely differently.”
  • Meanwhile, hundreds of people are being turned away. According to Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked as of late last week, 1,050 Ukrainians who came since the war have left Israel either by choice or have been refused entry. According to the Ynet news site, 290 were denied entry.
  • Speaking to Army Radio on Sunday, Minister Chili Tropper admits the optics of Ukrainian refugees being turned away are not the best. “I too want to keep Israel’s Jewish character, with a raison d’etat of absorbing Jews, but at this stage, it’s not right to put caps on [how many refugees are being let in],” he says.
  • Kan news reports that the Population and Immigration Authority unnecessarily deported dozens of Ukrainian refugees because one of its forms had a translation error, resulting in applicants inadvertently declaring that they had stayed in Israel illegally in the past — when they thought they were saying only that they had previously visited the country.
  • MK Ibtisam Marana tells Army Radio that the Population and Immigration Authority told her they are removing all refugees from a hotel where they had been put up and sending them to jail instead.
  • In response, the agency tells the station that it’s not kicking everyone out, but just two people being denied entry who will be flown back to Europe: “Those denied entry are being taken to the Yahalom [detention] facility, since they were only taken to the Dan hotel as a solution to keep them from having to wait in the terminal.”
  • As for those refugees being allowed to stay, Haaretz’s Ravit Hecht notes that Israel isn’t exactly making life easier for them. “The state is treating them like tourists who will stay here for at most three months, the duration of the visa they have received. Most are living with the Israelis who ‘invited’ them and posted financial guarantees on their behalf; some are in hostels. The Interior Ministry’s policy toward them, as of now, is to provide food and clothing, and that’s it,” she writes.
  • Even those allowed to immigrate under the Law of Return won’t exactly have an easy road. On top of everything they are going through, they will eventually need to deal with Israel’s religion-based authority over life cycle events like marriage and death, which won’t see them as Jews. Or as ToI’s Amy Spiro puts it: “Jewish enough to obtain citizenship, but not Jewish enough to be married or buried as Jews in the Jewish state.”
  • “Weddings and burials are like symbolic gates for belonging to the Jewish collective,” Dr. Anna Prashizky, Russia native and expert on immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union, tells her. “And if you make this symbolic separation, people feel like they’re not welcomed, that they don’t fully belong.”

2. Enough about Ukraine, let’s talk about Mekraine: While the country argues over fitting Ukrainians into Israel, others are looking to see how to fit Israel into Ukraine, literally and figuratively.

  • Speaking to Kan radio, former Israeli ambassador to Ukraine Yoav Bistritzky says that a field hospital being put up by Israel is nearly ready to open its doors. “We are the first country opening a hospital like this on Ukrainian territory,” he boasts.
  • Reporting from Motskyska, Ukraine, the town near the Polish border where the hospital is being set up, ToI’s Carrie Keller-Lynn writes, “While the project was touch-and-go for days after the intention to erect it was first announced over two weeks ago, the Israeli hospital has overcome funding and security concerns, bringing its 17 tons of equipment from Israel into Ukraine on Saturday morning over the Polish border.”
  • “Today, we’ll unload all of the trucks, and we’ll start to put everything into the hospital by Sunday night,” says Yehuda Katzora, a Sheba administrator who is managing the project. “We’ll do finishing touches on Monday and open on Tuesday.”
  • Israel is also in Ukraine in a more metaphysical way, with many pundits drawing policy conclusions or warnings for Israel based on what is happening in Ukraine. Haaretz’s Amos Harel, for instance, notes two possible lessons. The first regards the optics of urban combat, which could affect public opinion should Israel fight in Gaza or Lebanon again. And the second relates to a leader with unchecked power.
  • “Although there is a large disparity between Israeli democracy and Russian autocracy (which is gradually returning to a totalitarian regime), in Israel, too, the decisions were made by one leader over the years,” he writes. “If we return for a moment to the period of Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership, all the major decisions – the pressure on the United States to withdraw from the nuclear accord, the attempt to annex the settlements via the ‘deal of the century,’ the Abraham Accords with the Emirates and Bahrain, even the deal involving the submarines and other vessels – were made in practice by one person, without any real supervisory mechanism.”
  • The Financial Times reported last week that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was the key international mediator in Ukraine-Russia talks, but in Israel Hayom, Amnon Lord chides the government for falling into a US trap that he says forces Israel to play the international villain for refusing to back Ukraine fully, and being viewed as a warmonger for refusing to go along with the Iran nuclear deal.
  • “It’s already been said that in the Ukraine war, there are no winners. Except for one: China. There will be one loser: Israel,” he writes. “This is the planned work of the Biden administration and its cynical policies towards Ukraine, the Middle East, and Israel. Bennett’s mediation efforts are a result of the trap Washington set for Jerusalem.”
  • He’s not the only one seeing Russia as Iran in bear’s clothing. In Yedioth, Ben-Dror Yemini writes that Ukrainians are being abandoned by the West to face down an enemy so the West doesn’t have have to. “Ukraine is fighting alone against the Russian giant, with moral and financial support from the West. The question is, when will the world understand that for years Israel has stood alone against the Iranian monster, whose murderous harm in the Middle East has been much worse, even today, than Russia’s in Europe,” he claims.

3. Loss of a giant: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is slated to address the Knesset directly later Sunday, but that is not nearly the biggest story of the day. (In fact, coverage mostly revolves around fears that too few lawmakers will show up, or that they will be unruly.)

  • Instead, it’s the death of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, considered a giant of the ultra-Orthodox community, and his funeral, that is shutting down a large swath of central Israel and that has dominated the news landscape for much of the weekend.
  • “Kanievsky, a hugely influential leader of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, with hundreds of thousands of followers, was a scion of rabbinical dynasties known for his elite Talmud study,” explains ToI’s obituary.
  • Kanievsky’s death makes major news even in the secular press: Both tabloids Yedioth and Israel Hayom wrap a significant portion of their front pages in black in mourning for the rabbi. Coverage in the ultra-Orthodox press is wall to wall.
  • “At a time when people were speaking about rabbis losing power in the ultra-Orthodox community, in Bnei Brak arose a massive power the likes of which have not been seen,” writes Channel 12’s Yair Cherky. “A Lithuanian[-branch] halachic arbiter, with the characteristics of a Hasidic leader and the blessings of a Sephardic baba. A new kind of Maran. With an unprecedented mystical halo about him. His nickname in the community was ‘minister of Torah.’”
  • Despite that high stature, his acolyte Rabbi Avraham Stern tells Kan that he was humble. “He really didn’t know his value. Thousands would come before him because he was quick to get it. He would say ‘whatever God puts in my mouth that’s what I’ll tell you.’ He never had a free moment for himself.”
  • Shas MK Moshe Arbel mentions to Army Radio that as a teen he would mail questions to rabbis, and Kanievsky was the only one to consistently answer him. “This is a huge loss. There’s a large leadership hole now,” he says.
  • But in Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer points out that Kanievsky was not a strong leader and was seemingly used by powerful rabbi-politicians, which was not always helpful for his community, such as with the pandemic. At the same time, there’s nobody up and coming who will command the respect of such a wide band of people.
  • “On the horizon there are no rabbis of the same stature and with similar levels of authority as those in the generation which has now almost finally departed. The chasm between the rabbis and their community, in age, awareness and life experience, has never been so wide and visible,” he notes, predicting a sea change in Haredi society. “Ultra-Orthodox society is much more dynamic than it seems on the outside and young Haredi people are getting used to finding solutions for their personal, familial and communal issues without rabbinical guidance.”

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