Israel set to absorb thousands of Ukrainian refugees

Anyone with family member in Israel will be allowed to enter as long as conflict continues

Israel is preparing to take in tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees after approving a new policy under which anyone in Ukraine with a family member in Israel will be allowed to enter as long as the conflict continues.

More than 7,000 Ukrainians have already entered Israel since the Russian invasion and the plan is to house the new arrivals in guest houses, youth hostels and at army bases.

Israel’s top priority remains the absorption of Jews who are fleeing the fighting and initially the government set a limit of 5,000 non-Jewish refugees. But a fierce backlash caused a U-turn over the weekend, allowing more refugees to arrive.

“The citizens of Israel are facing a significant challenge,” prime minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday. “We are at the start of a wave of Aliyah” – Jewish immigration – “many Jews want to reach us, in Israel, from the war zone in Europe. You belong with us and the people of Israel are embracing you.”


He also stressed Israel must ensure that the new immigrants have homes, employment, schools and more.

Contingency plans are being drawn up for up to 100,000 Ukrainian and Russian Jewish immigrants under the Law of Return, which allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to emigrate to Israel.

Mr Bennett also defended easing the policy to allow more non-Jewish refugees to arrive.

“We are allowing them to stay with friends and family as long as they need, until the war passes. We are partners in the major humanitarian effort,” he said, noting that Israel had sent plane loads of humanitarian assistance and plans to open a field hospital on Ukrainian soil in the coming days.

Diluting the Jewish character

Israel is a nation of immigrants and is sensitive to the plight of refugees due to the experience of many Jews who tried to flee the impending Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe during the second World War but were refused visas by many states who closed their gates.

However, some on the right and some religious Jews oppose the arrival of non-Jews, believing they will undermine the country’s Jewish character.

Initially Israel limited entry to 5,000 non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees not eligible for citizenship, alongside the approximately 20,000 Ukrainian nationals already in the country when the war began.

The government U-turn came after fierce criticism, from within and outside the government, over the decision to impose strict quotas.

“Israel, the state of the Jewish people, must reach out to refugees in Europe,” said diaspora affairs minister Nachman Shai. “We must not be indifferent to the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place there.”

Demonstrators at a weekend protest in Tel Aviv held up signs saying “A Jew does not expel a refugee”.