Israel eases citizenship requirements for Ukrainians, but only for Jewish families

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has asked her office to ease citizenship requirements for families of Ukrainians who immigrate to Israel, but only if they are Jewish by Israeli religious standards, the Knesset told Monday. head of the Israel Border Crossings, Population and Immigration Administration.

Lawmakers who have heard of the policy, which discriminates solely on religion and not citizenship eligibility, have harshly criticized it as discriminatory and unprecedented.

These remarks were made during a special session on Israel’s efforts to help Ukrainian Jews, held in the Knesset’s Constitution, Laws and Justice Committee and not – as would normally be case – within the Committee on Immigration, Integration and Diaspora, as this parliamentary group has not yet been 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 referred to by the Hebrew term aliyah — with about a third of them specifically asking to move to Israel immediately, Tamano-Shata said.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, the immediate families of those eligible to immigrate to Israel – that is, anyone with a Jewish parent or grandparent – can also receive Israeli citizenship, provided that they immigrate together. Usually families travel together; however, as Ukraine recruits adult men, many of them are forced to stay behind as their families move to Israel without them. Under normal circumstances, if a man was the only family member eligible for immigration – if he was the grandson of a Jew but not a Jew himself, for example, since Judaism runs through the bloodline kindergarten – the rest of his family couldn’t get citizenship without him.

But during a hearing on how Israel is helping Jews in Ukraine in light of the Russian invasion, the head of the Border Crossings, Population and Immigration Administration, Yoel Lipovsky, said to lawmakers that Shaked had ordered the department to temporarily suspend the requirement that the family must arrive together — but only if the person eligible for citizenship was Jewish under Orthodox law.

“If the eligible person is Jewish but does not immigrate to Israel, their family cannot [normally] obtain immigration status. Today, the Minister of Interior approved the granting of immigration status to his family, even if he remains there, because of the obligation of conscription for men in Ukraine. In the case of a family whose eligible member is not Jewish, the family cannot immigrate without him,” Lipovsky told the committee.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked addresses the Knesset during a discussion on the ‘citizenship law’ during a plenary session on July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 I’ve heard of differentiation between Jews and non-Jews who are eligible under the Law of Return. Those eligible for return are all in the same boat. I don’t know of any precedent for a minister to make a differentiating decision 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 agree to consider Jews as ‘Grade A’ or ‘Grade B'”.

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

Lipovsky also discussed Shaked’s politics with the Knesset Finance Committee. Here too, lawmakers, especially those who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, have questioned the differentiation between Jewish and non-Jewish candidates.

“I ask the minister to rethink this issue because at the end of the day these are people who can immigrate to Israel under the law of return and we are in an emergency situation. This dichotomy does not seem fair to me; if we don’t want to immediately grant them immigration status, find another way, but it is unacceptable that people who can normally immigrate to Israel cannot do so in an emergency,” said MK Alex Kushnir.

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

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

“We now have 12,000 beds ready to welcome immigrants. The heads of local councils and the hotel association are on board. The Ministry of Finance, led by the Minister of Finance, is also on board and there will be no budgetary problems,” she said.

His ministry’s chief executive, Ronen Cohen, said they expected large numbers of immigrants to arrive “as the guns continue to fire”. He said the ministry was working to ensure a “soft landing” for these new immigrants, allowing them to stay in a hotel for their first month and ensuring they receive an initial grant of 15,000 NIS ($4,679 ).

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

“The more Israeli society becomes aware of the situation of Jews living in Ukraine and Israelis there, the more we will deal with it, we will see one of our goals [realized], which is the growth of a sense of belonging to a people, a sense that all Jews are responsible for each other,” Shai said. “The much talked about Jewish solidarity is redefining and reworking itself for the 21st century.”

Shai’s ministry has allocated 10 million shekels ($3.12 million) to the Jewish community in Ukraine and plans to allocate an additional 10 million shekels in the future to the Ukrainian Jewish community and Jewish communities in the countries neighbours, who play a key role in providing shelter. and helping the thousands of Ukrainian Jewish refugees arriving at their borders.

Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shai added that his ministry was monitoring the situation in Ukraine to see if there was an increase in anti-Semitism in response to the war.

“I want to be careful. That there are gunshots in the streets and that citizens receive firearms increases the insecurity of [Jewish] community and could be deadly,” he said.

Rabbi Abraham Wolf, the chief rabbi of the city of Odessa, has warned of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe” if Jewish communities do not receive money to buy food and medicine.

“You don’t have to wait for things to get worse,” he said.

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