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Israel eases citizenship requirements for Ukrainians, but only for families of Jews

Lawmakers, some of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union, rail against Interior Minister Shaked’s seemingly unprecedented policy

By Judah Ari Gross 1 March 2022

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked instructed her office to ease citizenship requirements for the families of Ukrainians immigrating to Israel, but only if they are Jewish according to Israel’s religious standard, the head of Israel’s Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration told the Knesset on Monday.

Lawmakers who heard about the policy, which differentiates based solely on religion and not eligibility for citizenship, harshly criticized it as discriminatory and without precedent.

The remarks were made during a special session on Israel’s efforts to assist Ukrainian Jewry, held in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and not — as it normally would be — in the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee as that parliamentary group has yet to be formed due to disagreements between the coalition and the opposition. Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata called the lack of a working immigration committee “a failure and even negligence” in light of the current situation.

Since Russia launched its offensive on Thursday, more than 10,000 Ukrainians have contacted the Jewish Agency, which facilitates immigration to Israel — commonly known by the Hebrew term Aliyah — with roughly a third of them specifically asking about immediately moving to Israel, Tamano-Shata said.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, the immediate families of those eligible to immigrate to Israel — which is anyone who has a Jewish parent or grandparent — can also receive Israeli citizenship, provided they immigrate together. Ordinarily, families travel together; however, as Ukraine has been drafting adult men, many of them are being forced to stay behind as their families go to Israel without them. Under normal circumstances, if a man were the only family member eligible for immigration — if he were the grandson of a Jew but not Jewish himself, for instance, as Judaism passes through the maternal line — the rest of his family would not be able to obtain citizenship without him.

But in a hearing on the ways Israel is assisting Ukraine Jews in light of the Russian invasion, the head of the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration Yoel Lipovsky told lawmakers that Shaked had instructed the ministry to temporarily suspend the requirement that the family must arrive together — but only if the person eligible for citizenship was Jewish according to Orthodox law.

“If the eligible one is Jewish but isn’t immigrating to Israel, his family cannot [normally] receive immigrant status. Now, the interior minister has approved giving immigrant status to his family, even if he remains there, due to the conscription requirement for men in Ukraine. In the case of a family where the eligible member is not Jewish, the family cannot immigrate without him,” Lipovsky told the committee.

The head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK Gilad Kariv, who is a Reform rabbi, said he was shocked by Shaked’s policy and called for it to be reviewed.

“This is the first time I’ve heard of differentiating between Jewish and non-Jewish people who are eligible under the Law of Return. People eligible to return are all in the same boat. I don’t know of any precedent for a minister to make a decision differentiating like this in terms of who is eligible under the Law of Return,” Kariv said.

MK Yulia Malinovsky of the Yisrael Beytenu party, herself an immigrant from Ukraine, also denounced the policy, saying she “would not accept considering Jews as ‘Grade A’ or ‘Grade B.'”

Tamano-Shata, the immigration minister, however, backed the policy. “If someone is Christian and eligible under the Law of Return and doesn’t come to Israel, their family won’t receive citizenship,” she said.

Lipovsky also discussed Shaked’s policy with the Knesset’s Finance Committee. There, too, lawmakers, particularly those who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, questioned the differentiation between Jewish and non-Jewish applicants.

“I request that the minister rethink this issue because ultimately these are people who are able to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return and we are in an emergency. This dichotomy does not seem fair to me; if we don’t want to give them immigrant status immediately, find another way, but it’s unacceptable that people who ordinarily can immigrate to Israel can’t in a time of emergency,” said MK Alex Kushnir.

During the session in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Tamano-Shata and the director-general of her ministry said they were preparing for a large influx of immigrants from Ukraine.

“We now have 12,000 beds ready to receive immigrants. Heads of local councils and the hotels association are on board. The Finance Ministry, led by the finance minister, is also on board, and there won’t be budgetary issues,” she said.

The director-general of her ministry, Ronen Cohen, said they anticipated large numbers of immigrants to arrive “as the cannons keep firing.” He said the ministry was working to ensure a “soft landing” for these new immigrants, allowing them to stay at a hotel for their first month and ensuring they receive an initial grant of NIS 15,000 ($4,679).

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said that the devastating situation in Ukraine was bringing the international Jewish community together.

“The more awareness in Israeli society of the situation of Jews living in Ukraine, and of Israelis there, grows, and the more we deal with it, we will see one of our goals [realized], which is the growth of a sense of peoplehood, a feeling that all Jews are responsible for one another,” Shai said. “Jewish solidarity, which we talk about a lot, is getting a new definition and getting reworked for the 21st century.”

Shai’s ministry has allocated NIS 10 million ($3.12 million) for the Jewish community in Ukraine and is expecting to allocate another NIS 10 million in the future both to Ukrainian Jewry and to Jewish communities in the surrounding countries, which are playing key roles in providing shelter and aid to the thousands of Ukrainian Jewish refugees arriving on their borders.

Shai added that his ministry is monitoring the situation in Ukraine to see if there is a rise in antisemitism in response to the war.

“I want to be cautious. That there is gunfire in the streets and citizens receiving guns raises the insecurity of the [Jewish] community and could be deadly,” he said.

Rabbi Abraham Wolf, the chief rabbi of the city of Odesa, warned of an impending “humanitarian disaster” if the Jewish communities do not receive money to purchase food and medication.

“You don’t need to wait until the situation gets worse,” he said.

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