Thousands of Ukrainians inquire about moving to Israel, Jewish Agency says

Organization sets up processing stations on the borders with Poland, Moldova, Romania, and Hungary to help Ukrainian refugees who wish to immigrate

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

A group of Ukrainians travel to Poland before immigrating to Israel, on February 26, 2022. (Jewish Agency)
A group of Ukrainians travel to Poland before immigrating to Israel, on February 26, 2022. (Jewish Agency)

The Jewish Agency has received thousands of inquiries from Ukrainian citizens in recent days about immigrating to Israel, after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the eastern European nation, an official in the organization said Saturday.

The Jewish Agency, a semi-governmental body that is responsible for encouraging and overseeing immigration to Israel, or aliyah, has been working to facilitate the expected wave of migration from Ukraine to Israel in light of the Russian offensive, including setting up emergency hotlines to answer questions about the immigration process. Some 200,000 people in Ukraine are eligible to immigrate under Israel’s law of return, which requires a person to have at least one Jewish grandparent in order to receive Israeli citizenship.

On Saturday, the organization said it was establishing six aliyah processing stations on Ukraine’s borders with Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary, as Ukrainian refugees fled the country en masse.

Since last Monday, the Jewish Agency has been operating out of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, having moved from its usual offices in Kyiv due to warnings from the Israeli government of an impending Russian attack. On Saturday, as the Russian offensive expanded and Lviv was also targeted, the organization said it had abandoned these offices as well, moving its emissaries to the Polish side of the border. This was in line with a similar move by Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

“From there, they will cross the border into Ukraine every day, together with Israel’s diplomatic teams, in order to continue assisting Ukrainian Jews who want to immigrate to Israel,” the Jewish Agency said in a statement.

“The Jewish Agency is also standing by to immediately increase [the number of] these stations, as needed,” it said.

The organization said it was also preparing to temporarily house prospective Ukrainian immigrants in Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary as they await transport to Israel, with funding from “The Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod and other donors from around the world.”

Many thousands of people have already contacted the organization about immigrating to Israel in the past few days amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a Jewish Agency official told The Times of Israel on Saturday, asking not to be identified by name.

Though not all of these will necessarily complete the process and immigrate, it would still mark a major jump from previous years. In all of 2021, just over 3,100 people immigrated to Israel from Ukraine. Israeli officials have said they were preparing to accept thousands of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine.

Ordinarily a time-consuming affair, the Jewish Agency is working to streamline the immigration process in light of the war. An Israeli governmental organization known as Nativ, which maintains close ties to Jews from the former Soviet Union, has been helping in this effort, verifying documents and signing off on immigration eligibility.

Israel saw a similar jump in immigration from Ukraine in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea.

The first group of new immigrants from the country since the outbreak of fighting crossed into Poland on Saturday after a “nerve-wracking 16-hour process,” the Jewish Agency said.

“The immigrants are being temporarily housed in a hotel near Warsaw where they will remain until they are flown to Israel shortly. Upon arrival in Israel, the immigrants will receive temporary housing, with help from the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption,” the organization said.

The cabinet will hold talks on Ukraine, and on taking in Jewish Ukrainians, on Sunday. Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai and Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata were both invited to the cabinet meeting to discuss the developments with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Ynet reported.

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