Government ends fast-tracked immigration option for Russians, drawing criticism

Former Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky laments move, which Aliyah and Integration Ministry attributed to low demand for service despite massive increase in immigration

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Russian-speaking recent immigrants to Israel tour the Samaria Regional Council in the West Bank in 2023. (Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli)
Russian-speaking recent immigrants to Israel tour the Samaria Regional Council in the West Bank in 2023. (Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli)

The Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, which handles the immigration of Jews to Israel, has ended a so-called fast track for Russian and Belarusian applicants, citing low demand for the service despite increasing arrivals amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war.

Natan Sharansky, a former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a semi-governmental organization that facilitates such immigration, criticized April’s ending of the “fast-track” option, which allowed prospective immigrants to demonstrate their eligibility before starting the naturalization process, providing a degree of certainty that it will work out for them.

“In the current situation in Russia, which is unstable, to say the least, it’s important to keep the fast-track option available,” Sharansky told The Times of Israel Sunday.

The previous government led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid instituted the fast-track option last year following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which prompted a massive increase in Jewish immigration to Israel — or aliyah — from both countries, as well as from neighboring, Russia-aligned Belarus.

The fast track allowed prospective immigrants to establish eligibility for citizenship before immigrating, potentially shortening the naturalization process because it meant the Jewish Agency and Interior Ministry didn’t need to vet candidates.

Its scrapping for Russians and Belarusians means that applicants must now either go through the regular vetting process abroad through the Israeli consulate, which has a months-long backlog, or enter Israel on a tourist visa and proceed with the process vis-a-vis the Interior Ministry and other aliyah authorities in Israel.

The Jewish Agency may reimburse the immigrants’ flight tickets, but only if they are found eligible for aliyah under the Law of Return, which enables any Jew and anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent to get Israeli citizenship.

But out of 3,000 newcomers from Russia in June, only 200 applied for the fast-track service, according to ministry statistics. The relatively low demand is the main reason for ending that option, which gave prospective immigrants the green light to arrive in Israel and complete the process there.

Former refusenik, prison of Zion, Soviet dissident and Israeli cabinet minister, Natan Sharansky in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Sharansky disputed this logic. “Without a doubt, the number of people who will make use of this service will increase rapidly, if it is kept available to them,” he said, arguing that the current government was not giving the service enough of a chance to succeed.

Russian citizens are eligible for an automatic, 90-day tourist visa upon entering Israel. They may apply to make aliyah through the Jewish Agency and the Interior Ministry during that period. The fast-track option, which was instituted to respond to increased immigration from Russia and Ukraine, allowed applicants to register as eligible in principle for immigration into Israel.

Out of about 70,000 people who came from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine since the outbreak of the war in February 2022, only four percent were found to be ineligible for aliyah. The vast majority of newcomers were from Russia, amid a crackdown on civil liberties there and a revival of nationalist sentiment.

The fast-track option continues for immigrants from Ukraine.

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