Efforts also underway to fly in Ethiopian immigrants soon

Jewish Agency to ramp up immigration flights from Ukraine to tackle refugee crisis

More than 4,000 people with immigration rights have moved to Israel since start of Russian invasion and ‘tens of thousands’ more expected to join them, organization says

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

Ukrainian Jews who fled war zones in Ukraine arrive on a rescue flight at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Ukrainian Jews who fled war zones in Ukraine arrive on a rescue flight at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on March 17, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Some 4,000 Ukrainians have immigrated to Israel since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last month, and thousands more are expected to arrive in the coming weeks and months, the acting head of the Jewish Agency said Monday.

In comparison, just over 3,000 people immigrated from Ukraine in all of 2021, according to Israel’s Immigration and Absorption Ministry.

In total, the Jewish Agency anticipates tens of thousands of people from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia to immigrate to Israel in the near future, Jewish Agency acting chairman Yaakov Hagoel told journalists in a virtual press conference.

“It could be 20,000 or it could be 90,000. It’s in the tens of thousands,” he said.

Government officials have said that up to 100,000 new immigrants from the former Soviet Union may reach Israel’s shores in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Alongside these efforts, the Jewish Agency was also stepping up its preparations to bring thousands of Ethiopians to Israel after the High Court of Justice removed an injunction that has been blocking their immigration since November.

From left, Jewish Agency CEO Amira Aharonovich, Jewish Agency acting chairman Yaakov Hagoel and head of the Jewish Agency’s immigration and absorption department Shay Felber, sit in the organization’s ‘situation room’ to discuss efforts to bring Ukrainian immigrants to Israel on March 21, 2022. (Jewish Agency)

The CEO of the Jewish Agency, Amira Aharonovich, said the first flights of Ethiopian immigrants were expected to arrive in Israel before the Passover holiday next month.

Aliyah Express

According to Jewish Agency figures, roughly 8,500 Ukrainians have started the paperwork to immigrate to Israel — or as it’s known in Hebrew, to make aliyah — and 25,000 have called the Jewish Agency’s hotline to inquire about immigration since the start of the Russian offensive on February 24. It was not clear whether those numbers included the aforementioned 4,000.

The Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental body responsible for immigration to Israel, said it was launching a new effort, dubbed “Aliyah Express,” in order to better handle this massive wave of immigration and more quickly get refugees who are eligible for Israeli citizenship out of the temporary housing where they are staying in countries surrounding Ukraine and onto planes to Israel. Under Israel’s Law of Return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible for Israeli citizenship.

Hagoel said the Jewish Agency was working with other organizations like the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the Joint Distribution Committee, the United Jewish Appeal and others to use more planes to fly far more would-be immigrants to Israel, from hundreds a week currently to thousands.

“We want planes to be waiting for immigrants, not immigrants to be waiting for planes,” Hagoel said.

Ukrainian Jewish refugee Olga Chudnaya from Hostomel sits inside the Agudath Israel synagogue in Moldova’s capital Chisinau on March 15, 2022, before heading to the airport to board a plane to Israel (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

At the same time, the organization was working to increase the number of beds available for people in refuge countries as they wait for approval to immigrate.

According to Hagoel, the organization was working to ensure there were enough beds for up to 10,000 refugees at facilities in Poland, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria, Hungary and elsewhere.

In addition, the organization was working to streamline the immigration process, giving initial citizenship approval far more quickly. Instead of performing all the necessary documentation checks and reviews while the applicant was still abroad, under a new government policy launched last week applicants would receive initial approval allowing them to come to Israel, and then the rest of the immigration process would be completed after they arrive.

According to Hagoel, this new faster approach will allow people to receive initial approval within four or five days, when in the past it would have taken two to three weeks.

A woman from Mykolaiv, Ukraine, who has received approval to immigrate to Israel, receives her documents at the Absorption Ministry hall at Ben Gurion Airport’s Terminal 1 building, assisted by Mykolaiv’s Chabad rabbi, Shalom Gottlieb. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Shay Felber, the head of the Jewish Agency’s immigration and absorption department, stressed that while this change shortens the amount of time it takes for would-be immigrants to get on a plane, their full documentation will still need to be approved in Israel before they can receive citizenship.

On the absorption side of the immigration effort, the organization said it was working with the Israeli government to ensure housing and aid for the incoming immigrants, many of whom were arriving without any of their belongings.

Aharonovich said the past month has also seen a large jump in inquiries about immigrating to Israel from Russia and Belarus — roughly three times as many queries as normal — though there has yet to be a major, sustained rise in actual immigration.

Not just Ukraine

Alongside the Jewish Agency’s concerted efforts on the Ukrainian front, the organization was working to fly in thousands of Ethiopians who are eligible for Israeli citizenship and who are escaping their own country’s brutal civil war.

In November, the government approved a plan to let thousands of Ethiopians with first-degree relatives in Israel immigrate under the Law of Return. However, the right-wing Israeli Immigration Policy Center petitioned the High Court of Justice to block the move on the grounds that the Ethiopians in question were not themselves Jewish or the direct descendants of Jews. The immigration was blocked by a judicial injunction until the matter could be resolved.

After the court indicated it would not overturn the government’s decision, the Israeli Immigration Policy Center withdrew its opposition last week, ending the injunction and allowing the government’s plan to proceed.

Immigrants arrive from Ethiopia at Ben Gurion airport on March 11, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The Jewish Agency continues to be committed to saving every Jew in any place in the world. It is working now — alongside its Ukrainian operations — to carry out the government’s decision… under which nearly 3,000 people from the community waiting in Ethiopia will immigrate,” Aharonovich said.

She stressed that not only had the Jewish Agency not slowed down its efforts to bring over the Ethiopian immigrants, but that “the opposite was true” and it was expanding its operations in the country.

According to Aharonovich, additional Jewish Agency teams have been sent to Ethiopia to conduct interviews with applicants and review their paperwork in order to provide them with immigration visas.

“Saving the Jews of Ukraine and the Jews of Ethiopia together is part of the Jewish Agency’s moral obligation and purpose,” she told reporters.

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