In a quiet corner of the West Bank settlement of Neve Daniel, with pastoral views of terraced hills of olive groves and vineyards, lives a young immigrant family, recently arrived and now busy putting down roots.
The Libensons have been warmly welcomed and are slowly adapting to life in the new surroundings, similar to the integration process for many fresh immigrants.
But the Libenson family is also part of a major wave of migration to Israel, bound up in what has become one of the most defining events of the 21st century: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Since Moscow launched its offensive on February 24, some 33,000 people from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus had made aliyah to Israel as of mid-August. Of those, over 12,000 have come from Ukraine itself, almost 20,000 from Russia, and just over 1,000 from Belarus.
This flood of immigrants from the region, which occurred in under six months, not only dwarfs pre-COVID numbers but also exceeds total immigration figures for the entirety of most years in the past decade.
Substantial numbers of Russian immigrants have reportedly returned to Russia after obtaining citizenship and a passport, but the numbers of those who have made Israel their new home remains extremely high regardless.
‘A natural destination for Jews’
What distinguishes the Libenson family from the rest of the wave is where they have chosen to begin their new lives as Israelis.
They are part of a very small number of immigrants from Eastern Europe who have swapped war-torn Ukraine or politically repressive Russia and Belarus for one of the longest and most complex geopolitical conflicts of modern times, by moving to West Bank settlements.
The Yesha Council, an umbrella organization of settlement municipal authorities in the West Bank, estimates that around 50 immigrant families from Ukraine and Russia have moved to live in the settlements since the start of the war.
Despite their small number, these newly minted settlers appear to be deeply ideological.
Israel and Lea Libenson made aliyah in May with their two sons, Nathan and Yosef Zalman, and Israel’s mother Haya-Rina from a town not far from Moscow.
The couple became religiously observant around eight years ago and say that they increasingly contemplated making aliyah ever since.
Now settled in their new home, they speak fervently of the Jewish people’s right to the entire biblically defined land of Israel and quickly dismiss Palestinian aspirations for independence, which the expanding settlements make more difficult.
The Libensons began their aliyah process three years ago, but the COVID-19 pandemic as well as Lea becoming pregnant delayed their move to Israel until they finally received immigration visas in March this year.
Meanwhile, the increasing political repression in Russia aroused old memories among from the Soviet era when Jews and others were banned from leaving the country.
Flights to Israel became heavily oversubscribed following the invasion of Ukraine, and casting a further cloud over the situation is the effort began in July by the Russian Justice Ministry to shut down the local operations of the Jewish Agency, which facilitates aliyah.
In light of the mounting problems in Russia, the Yesha Council’s East Europe desk established a group on the encrypted Telegram messaging service to provide information to those seeking to make aliyah.
The Libensons found out about the Telegram group by word of mouth and through it learned about the possibility of moving to a West Bank settlement. Yesha subsequently put them in touch with Esther Fleisher from the Gush Etzion Regional Council, who began discussing options with them.
Eventually Israel and Lea decided to move to the Neve Daniel settlement, less than 15 kilometers southeast of Jerusalem, and Fleisher found them an apartment to rent. The Gush Etzion Regional Council paid for the first three weeks of rent while the family got itself established.
“This is a natural destination for Jews. It comes from our hearts and souls,” said Lea.
The couple noted that in their hometown, there was a very comfortable framework of communal Jewish life, with a synagogue, yeshiva, strong communal life and frequent events.
“We always knew, though, that the future of the Jewish people is in Israel, especially for children to grow up in a Jewish environment. Only here can they do that and can walk around freely with a kippah,” said Israel.
“No amount of comfort is equal to the value of settling the land.”
They emphasized how warmly they were welcomed by Neve Daniel residents and said that they had been inundated with offers of help as they got used to their new home.
Asked about how they felt about moving to a bitterly contested territory that another people seeks as its own homeland, the couple were defiant.
“The Palestinians won’t get a state here,” Israel flatly declared.
“It is logical that State of Israel will develop its borders to those defined by the Bible,” he continued, adding that he believed the final messianic redemption of the Jewish people was near and that the Palestinians would not be able to establish a state before that deliverance.
The couple noted that friends of theirs had warned them not to move to the settlements, saying it was dangerous. However, the pair said they had not felt any lack of security since they arrived.
The Palestinians’ perceived hostility ‘only increases our motivation to be here’
But they said that when traveling close to Palestinian population centers in the West Bank they had “felt the hostility of the Palestinians,” though this did not give them pause as to their choice of home.
“This [hostility] only increases our motivation to be here and settle this territory and make it part of Israel,” said Israel.
“Living here makes us feel we are really fulfilling the mitzvah [religious commandment] of settling the land of Israel, instead of going to a city that has already been settled.”
‘Wanted to see how we could help’
The number of immigrants from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus moving to the settlements is exceedingly small compared to the total number of immigrants from the region, but the Yesha Council has made and is continuing to make concerted efforts to attract Jews from these countries to move to the West Bank.
Although the influx of immigrants from Ukraine is thought to now be slowing, the severe political repression in Russia and the echoes of the past it evokes for Jews in that country means the tide of Russian immigrants is unlikely to abate any time soon.
Yesha’s East Europe desk is now primed to help them move to the West Bank.
Established in 2020 with the goal of assisting Jews from the former Soviet Union who had already moved to the settlements, the desk took on the task of helping Ukrainian Jews flee following the Russian invasion, said Yesha Council director Yigal Dilmoni.
He said that at the beginning of the war, the organization — like several others — began connecting Ukrainian Jews to transport operators who were taking refugees westwards away from the fighting, and says they helped thousands of people flee the war zone.
Yesha subsequently sent an aid consignment to Moldova to assist Jewish refugees who had fled there and also dispatched a delegation of Russian-speaking social workers to provide them with assistance for trauma-related problems many refugees have suffered from.
“We noticed that families were arriving in Israel with the father stuck in Ukraine [due to an exit ban for men of military age]. These families and children had experienced severe trauma but were not receiving any mental health support,” said Dilmoni.
“We wanted to see how we could help on issues that were not being addressed by others,” he said.
The head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council Shlomo Neeman, who is also the head of Yesha’s East Europe desk, then decided to send a delegation of volunteers to several countries bordering Ukraine to assist the refugees and provide them with information about moving to the area.
Members of the Gush Etzion mission also visited hotels where the refugees were staying to hand out leaflets and other material advertising the attractions of living in the area.
One refugee family that moved from Ukraine to the West Bank is that of Eduard and Olena German, who made aliya with their three children Ilana, David, and Adael in March this year.
After exploring several options, they decided to move to the settlement city of Maale Adumim, just east of Jerusalem, which is the third largest West Bank settlement.
‘Only place we thought to go was Israel’
The Germans’ flight from the Russian invasion is typical of many Ukrainian refugees living in the country’s east, but no less harrowing for that.
“Before February 24 no one thought the Russians would attack, but that morning we woke up to the sound of explosions,” said Olena.
The family lived in the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, which was a primary target during the first stage of the Russian invasion.
Living close to Kharkiv’s city center, Olena said she and her husband thought initially they could remain in their hometown since the fighting was taking place on the outskirts of the city and they did not believe themselves to be in imminent danger.
“When the Russians began bombing residential areas and we saw fighter jets overhead, we realized how close the war was and we decided to flee,” said Olena.
“The only place we thought to go was Israel.”
Olena and Eduard explained that while the proximate cause of their move to Israel was the Russian invasion, they had been planning to make aliyah for some years and said they did so out of “Zionist convictions.”
After several days, the couple managed to find a group organizing transport out of Kharkiv and after waiting at the assembly point in the freezing Ukrainian winter while exposed to Russian shelling for several hours, Olena, Eduard and their three children boarded a bus bound for Lviv in western Ukraine close to the border with Poland.
They then embarked on a 40-hour journey, traveling along minor roads mostly at night to avoid the Russian military, and finally ended up in Lviv.
After they waited for six days at the border, Jewish Agency officials helped them cross the border into Hungary, where they stayed in a hotel in Budapest while they made arrangements for their aliyah.
‘To us it is clear whom the land belongs to and who should live there’
While at the hotel, they saw leaflets placed there by the Yesha delegation and were immediately interested.
Dilmoni was in Budapest at the time and sat down with the family to discuss the option of moving to a West Bank settlement.
Olena said the couple had never thought of moving to a settlement, but after hearing about it from Dilmoni they further consulted with the coordinator of Yesha’s Eastern European desk, Elisha Henkin, who was also in Budapest at the time.
Upon arriving in Israel, they were taken to the northern city of Nof Hagalil and began exploring. The couple considered some settlements deeper in the West Bank such as Ariel, Shilo or Ofra, but eventually decided on Maale Adumim due its proximity to Jerusalem.
The couple say they are now happily ensconced in the settlement and enjoying their new home, noting the warm welcome given to them by the community ever since their arrival.
Asked how they felt about moving from the intense conflict zone that has become their former country to the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the couple were unfazed.
“The long-term, permanent war is not only over Judea and Samaria but for the whole of the Land of Israel,” said Eduard, using the biblical terms for the West Bank.
He also dismissed comparison between Ukraine as a country whose territory has been occupied and the Palestinians, who wish to establish a state in the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Gaza Strip with a capital in East Jerusalem.
Eduard insisted that it is, rather, the Ukrainians and Jews whose national stories parallel each other.
“The Ukrainian nation was forged many years ago but only got independence 30 years ago. So too the Jewish people was forged thousands of years ago but only regained its independence just over 70 years ago,” he insisted.
And he said that they had deliberately moved to a settlement in order to affirm Israel’s control of the region.
“To us it is clear whom the land belongs to and who should live there. We have come to live here as a political act to strengthen the Jewish presence in the area.”