Israel to significantly shorten entry process for would-be immigrants from Ukraine

As more and more people with Jewish ties seek to immigrate, Israel will begin to let nearly all of them into the country, but only award citizenship after further screening

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

Illustrative. Jewish Ukrainian refugees at an emergency shelter sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and Joint Distribution Committee in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 5, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative. Jewish Ukrainian refugees at an emergency shelter sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and Joint Distribution Committee in Chisinau, Moldova, on March 5, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

As Israel struggles to handle the growing numbers of Ukrainian refugees with Jewish ancestors who are asking to immigrate, the government is significantly scaling back its initial entry requirements to allow nearly all of them in, but without immediately granting them citizenship, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Sunday night.

Until now, Ukrainian refugees seeking to immigrate to Israel have had to wait until their documentation was approved so they could receive an immigration visa, which afforded them citizenship upon landing. This process created a significant bottleneck, as people were forced to wait for indefinite periods of time in neighboring countries as Israeli officials on the ground reviewed all of their paperwork to ensure they were eligible for citizenship. This already time-consuming process was further complicated by the fact that many refugees, fleeing active war zones, did not have the necessary paperwork in their possession and had no means of retrieving it.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, citizenship can be automatically granted to any person who has at least one Jewish grandparent.

The new system, known as “Green Path,” would allow nearly all refugees reasonably claiming to be eligible for Israeli citizenship into the country, without receiving immigration visas. Once in Israel, they will complete the immigration process and only then receive citizenship, Neta Briskin-Peleg, the head of the government’s Nativ organization, told The Times of Israel.

Briskin-Peleg said this decision was made in light of the throngs of refugees fleeing Russia’s onslaught against Ukraine. “With these numbers, it wouldn’t matter if we had another 100 clerks. We wouldn’t be able to keep up,” she said.

Nativ was formed in the 1950s to connect Soviet Jews with Israel, and has since become tasked with helping people eligible for Israeli citizenship from the former Soviet Union immigrate to Israel.

With the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been a massive spike in immigration requests, which Nativ has been tasked with approving as a representative of the Israeli government.

It has been regularly lambasted for its slow speed in reviewing the requests and issuing visas, leaving applicants in a frustrating state of limbo while they wait.

“The State of Israel is doing everything — everything — to make it harder to bring Jews to Israel,” Yoel Azman, the son of prominent Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Azman, told The Times of Israel, from Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, on Sunday.

“We have more than 1,400 full beds. Every minute, more and more people are coming,” he said. Azman said some of those beds are mattresses on storage room floors as they have no more room.

According to Azman, many of the people he and other activists are looking after in Chisinau are elderly women and people with disabilities and health issues, not people who can be expected to sleep on mattresses on the floor for long periods of time while their documentation is sorted out.

“This is a catastrophe,” he said.

A spokesperson for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which works closely with the government on the immigration effort, acknowledged the issue, but said the government’s eased entry requirements were expected to address the growing backlog of requests.

The IFCJ spokesperson said additional flights are also planned from Chisinau, with the goal of having at least one flight of some 150 immigrant traveling to Israel each day. One such flight carrying 170 immigrants arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday afternoon.

Chisinau has emerged as one of the larger centers for refugees fleeing Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s deadly invasion of the country, which it launched on February 24. According to United Nations estimates, at least 2.5 million Ukrainians have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Thousands of these have been Ukrainians eligible for Israeli citizenship, either because they are Jewish or because at least one of their grandparents is Jewish.

Azman said that while he and other activists are waiting for Israel to more rapidly accept refugees, they are being forced to direct people to Germany and Poland instead. “We’re telling people to go to Germany. I don’t go to Germany because of what they did to my family [in the Holocaust]. But we are sending buses full of people to Germany, to Poland, anywhere, just not to Israel.”

Azman lamented that, while Germany and other European countries were freely accepting Ukrainian refugees and immediately offering them housing benefits, work permits, and other services, Israel has been moving extremely slowly to help.

“In Germany, where they killed our grandparents, they give you an apartment, work, etc. But this treatment [from Israel], this is what the Jews waited for?” he asked.

Sunday night’s policy change by Nativ came as Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced that people fleeing Ukraine who have relatives in Israel will be exempt from a 25,000-person entry cap placed by Israel on refugees who are not eligible for citizenship.

The move came amid rising criticism of the government’s refugee policy, from both within and outside the government.

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