Why Israel is not ready for Aliyah
I always knew that Israel would welcome us Jewish Ukrainians with open arms, but after the war began, I found that getting the support we needed was not that simple
By Ilya Bezruchko , November 15th, 2022
From the first day of the war, when hundreds of Jews faced the locked doors of the Israeli consulate in Lviv, all stories about Aliyah turned out to be a pumpkin, like in an old fairy tale. Some of them were moved to the temporary facility of the Jewish Agency of Israel, where women, children, and older adults stayed for one or two nights waiting for a bus to an EU country where they could pass the consulate check by Nativ. However, Jews on the temporarily occupied territories were wholly cut off from supplies or any assistance from the Jewish organizations.
Only a few weeks after the full-scale invasion of the Russian army, volunteers managed to make a dangerous trip to several surrounded cities and bring people out. Lately, the chief rabbi of Ukraine, Azman, cared to organize the evacuation from the temporarily occupied territories and saved hundreds or even thousands of Jews (and non-Jews) from the hostilities.
At the same time, Israeli diplomats stayed off Ukrainian soil. Their only advice to Jews and Israelis escaping the country was to mark themselves with IL letters on their vehicles or clothes on the A4 sheet of paper. And Israeli authorities will find them in lines after the border crossing. The Jewish Agency of Israel did the only official assistance for fast Aliyah on behalf of the State of Israel. From where I stand, all other initiatives, according to my sources, were funded by local Jewish businessmen as well as international Jewish organizations, but not the State of Israel.
More than 15 years ago, the head of the Israeli cultural center in Ukraine (operated by Nativ) ordered its representatives around Ukraine to collect data about available places of landing planes for possible rescue operations. According to my sources, those who work for the Israeli cultural center provided the needed data. This data included even roads that could carry the plane landing. This fact means that more than a dozen years ago, even before the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, Israeli authorities assumed that once a war may start in Ukraine. I can suggest that at that time Israeli government and security officials planned an operation of extraction of Jews from Ukraine in case of War. For some reason, this never happened during the beginning of the biggest war in Europe for the last 80 years.
There is no doubt that Israel has done a lot for Ukrainian Jews now, but the system of “Aliyah and integration” has to be seriously improved. First of all, the approach to the emergency was utterly wrong. And Israeli authorities repeat their mistakes once more with the next wave of Aliyah from Russia and Belarus. This wave from neighboring Ukraine countries started right after the war began and has enlarged lately after the announcement about partial mobilization in Russia and a covered call-up in Belarus.
A few weeks before the war began, the Israeli embassy sent a warning to all Israeli citizens in Ukraine, ordering them to leave as fast as possible. However, the Israeli side did not provide any additional means of transport to evacuate its citizens from Ukraine.
At the same time, the number of flights from Ukraine, as well as a number of consulate workers, remained the same.
Due to overcome the impending humanitarian crisis, Israeli authorities were supposed to:
Increase the number of flights from Ukraine (lately from Belarus, Russia, and neighboring countries);
Call up consulates and start additional courses for those who can become Nativ workers (open other consulate offices around Russia and Belarus);
Pre-book busses for evacuation (in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia).
Prepare facilities in Israel and not spend hundreds of thousands of USD to rent high-class hotels in Europe.
Israel did nothing mentioned above before the beginning of the war in Ukraine, nor before the mobilization in Russia, and covered call-up in Belarus, which led to the Aliyah crisis in the FSU countries.
I spoke to the number of Ukrainians that made Aliyah in recent months and those who made Aliyah during the first weeks/months of the war.
Speaking to those who moved to Israel in the first few months, I learned that most people were in different hotels around the country. Only once or twice a day, a worker from the Aliyah and Integration ministry came and tried to organize the process of receiving documents. However, due to the overload of the Misrad ha-Pnim offices in nearby locations, people were supposed to wait for weeks to get their first IDs in Israel to start their life over. Younger olim that had an opportunity to deal with the Interior Ministry on their own came to its offices with no tickets for the queue and managed to get papers done quickly. Others who didn’t speak English/Hebrew were supposed to wait days and days until their hotel group had time for a visit to Misrad ha-Pnim. Older adults or women with children were on their own in hotels.
Some new olim have no relatives in Israel and were supposed to live in hotels for more than three weeks. It means they have no right to receive monthly support from the government for apartment rent. Such a governmental decision hurts the most unsecured segments of the population — women with children and older adults.
Speaking to those who made Aliyah a bit later, I’ve learned that before the election, the Ministry of Finance did not transfer money to the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration for additional payments for the new olim from Ukraine. This additional payment of 5,500 NIS was supposed to support newcomers during their first time in Israel. Due to the fact, these people probably left everything they had in Ukraine, an area of hostility. At the same time, those families where members were supposed to return to Ukraine for a month or two to solve their issues were disabled from the rent payments. This system leads every family that faces such a situation to a difficult financial situation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Israeli authorities have already tried to teach Hebrew online to new olim. Due to the enormous increase of Aliyah, no one is organizing government classes of Hebrew online. Almost in every city of Israel, municipal ulpans are filled with repatriates. Those with small kids at home or kindergarten cannot learn Hebrew offline or online. It leads to the next problem, after six months, the Absorption Basket is gone, and moms with small kids cannot go to work because they do not know Hebrew; their kids are staying in municipal kindergartens only half a day, or they have to pay extra up to 1,000 NIS for all day. But where can they get this extra 1,000 NIS if they do not work?
On the other hand, Ukrainian/Russian-speaking kids face additional difficulties in municipal kindergartens. Even though there are usually some Ukrainian/Russian-speaking kids in the kindergarten groups who know Hebrew and translate for new olim kids, teachers often need to learn what to do with newcomers. Teachers do not involve them in some educational activities because they need to explain tasks to them and do not know how to do it. These small kids came from one stress of war to another difficulty of misunderstanding. However, some psychologists and teachers consider that the best way to learn a new language is to enter a new linguistic environment. Still, it’s challenging for kids aged 3-to-5-years-old to learn Hebrew with no initial knowledge bases that are not available for kids of new repatriates.
Another story is a line to every ministry. Most newcomers dealing with the bureaucracy alone can not even get time for a meeting in the Ministry of Aliyah and integration because the My Visit system needs to be fixed. Unlike the Interior Ministry, Aliyah and Integration Ministry employees are overloaded but very helpful. Now it is almost impossible to get a time for a meeting in the Ministry of Interior. That is why people are doing different tricks to cheat the system. Sometimes it looks that governmental structures do the only thing — provide hourly wages to their workers, but not the actual job. A few months ago, IT developers created an app that helps find free slots at the Ministry of Interior to assist newcomers, and Israeli citizens get their paperwork done faster. However, the Interior Ministry didn’t like that some tricky guys were trying to load the system with real work and just blocked the app. This means that workers of different governmental offices are interested in helping fewer people than they can, but only to get an hourly-based salary rather than result-orientation.
The Israeli government has remarkably integrated new repatriates for ages. But since the war began, the State of Israel appeared unready for such an enormous number of olim that needed primary staff, psychological support, and profound assistance in the integration process. This wave of Aliyah is not motivated by Zionism or the intention to return to Jewish roots. This Aliyah wished to survive. That is why these people need unique attitudes and additional help from behalf of the government. Also, the lion’s share of integration work done by the Israeli civil society helped those thousands of new repatriates that came to Israel from a rain of Russian rocket attacks. The reaction of civil society could be an excellent example of how the Israeli government can use the power of the people to solve such crises. Families and individuals could help olim hadashim to integrate into the new life in Israel and can be their first “touch to the country.” Volunteers do not ask for money from the government when they act. They only ask for assistance sometimes, and sometimes they ask not to interfere. We often heard from our non-Jewish friends that “Jews in every part of the world are so united and assistive to each other.” I wonder why the Jewish state is not using our superpower systematically as a part of the integration process of newcomers, especially those affected by the War.
Ilya Bezruchko is CEO of the co-working network in Ukraine and a representative of the National Coalition Supporting Euroasian Jewry (NCSEJ) in Ukraine, blogger and Jewish activist.