Ukraine War Ignites Israeli Debate Over Purpose of a Jewish State

JERUSALEM — Many of the refugees milling about the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel one recent morning had endured harrowing journeys from Ukraine, and in many cases were forced to leave close family members behind.

Now safely in Israel, they were picking up SIM cards issued by the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption and starting to contemplate next steps.

“I feel safe here, which is probably the most important thing for now,” said Lena Ivanova, 32, who owns a fashion business in Odessa and came to Israel with her two sons, Vadym, 9, and Evgen, 2. “Now I’m focusing on where to live. I need to make a lot of decisions.”

These were the lucky ones.

By virtue of their being Jewish, having at least one Jewish parent or grandparent or, as in Ms. Ivanova’s case, having a Jewish spouse, they automatically qualified for Israeli citizenship upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Others were not as fortunate.

Of the more than 15,200 Ukrainians who have arrived in Israel since the war began last month, nearly 11,000 do not meet the citizenship threshold. Even though most have relatives or friends in Israel, they are considered refugees, not immigrants, and subject to stricter rules.

The influx has ignited an emotional debate over what it means to be a Jewish state, pitting the national imperative to maintain Israel’s Jewish character against Jewish values that demand caring for those in need.

Some right-wing politicians and commentators have warned that the continued flow of non-Jews into the country could dilute its Jewish identity. Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right lawmaker, warned that Israel’s acceptance of refugees would “flood the state of Israel with gentiles.”

More liberal politicians and religious leaders have cited the biblical mandate to love the stranger and the ethical lessons of a long history of Jews being refugees themselves.

Nachman Shai, the left-wing minister of diaspora affairs, said the debate should focus on “the values of the state of Israel, because without them this is not a Jewish state.”

Speaking by phone from a train platform packed with refugees in Warsaw, he added, “Anything bearing the message that we are closing the door is terrible and against our Jewish and human values.”

Israel’s right-wing interior minister, Ayelet Shaked, announced this month that Israel would take in up to 5,000 non-Jewish refugees on a temporary basis, and would allow 20,000 Ukrainian non-Jews already in the country, most of them illegally, to stay until the end of the fighting.

“The images of the war in Ukraine and the suffering of its citizens shake one’s soul and do not allow us to remain indifferent,” she said.

But the strict quota, which was already close to being filled when she made the announcement, prompted public outrage and criticism from other government ministers.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Israel had a “moral duty” to take in more non-Jewish refugees.

“We won’t close our gates and our hearts to those who lost everything,” he said as he toured a border crossing between Ukraine and Romania. “In Israel there are nine million residents and our Jewish identity won’t be harmed by a few more thousand refugees.”

Ms. Shaked later liberalized the guidelines, saying any Ukrainians with relatives living in Israel would be allowed in temporarily and would not count toward the quota of 5,000. That policy too has been criticized as too restrictive because it penalized refugees without families in Israel.

On Sunday, in a virtual address to Israeli lawmakers, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, begged them to show more compassion, comparing the suffering of Ukrainians to that of the Jewish people during the Holocaust.

“Our people are now scattered around the world,” he said. “They are looking for security. They are looking for a way to stay in peace. As you once searched.”

Israel has walked a fine line during the war, trying to aid Ukraine without alienating Russia, whose cooperation it needs to operate against Iranian forces in Syria. Israel has deep connections to both countries, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has served as a mediator.

Jews have a complicated history with Ukraine. Once home to a large, thriving Jewish population, Ukraine was the scene of widespread pogroms in the early 1900s and some of the worst mass killings of the Holocaust during World War II, often carried out with the help of Ukrainian auxiliaries.

That history looms large in the current debate.

“We have our memories from when Jews were not accepted in so many Western countries,” said Prof. Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, an independent research group based in Jerusalem.

Some of those waiting at the borders are “the grandchildren of the people who were cruel to my grandparents,” he added. “So what? They are human beings. The lesson of the Holocaust is not to behave the same way, but to open the door.”

But to others, the lesson of the Holocaust is the need for a Jewish homeland, and for that reason some right-wing activists have objected to Israel taking in any more than a symbolic number of non-Jewish refugees, even on a temporary basis.

“We know that in Israel what is temporary becomes permanent,” said Avichay Buaron, an Israeli lawyer and right-wing activist. “Uprooting them will be even harder.”

Rancorous debate over immigration policy is hardly new in Israel, erupting recently over the fate of relatives of Israelis of Ethiopian origin and previously over asylum seekers, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, who entered Israel illegally from Egypt.

But even for many of the lucky Ukrainians, life in Israel is likely to be complicated. While Israel’s Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to many people with Jewish connections, religious law as applied by Israeli authorities is stricter.

Less than a quarter of the roughly 200,000 Ukrainians eligible for Israeli citizenship are considered Jewish under religious or Israeli law and those who are not could face problems such as not being able to officially marry. Strictly Orthodox state religious authorities have a monopoly over legal Jewish weddings in Israel and there is no civil marriage.

“Once here, many will have to face the complexity of life in Israel for non-Jewish migrants,” said Alex Rif, a Ukrainian-born poet and an advocate for Russian speakers in Israel.

One solution, she said, lies in a more liberal conversion policy for those who want to convert to Judaism.

The religious services minister, Matan Kahana, has been promoting one version of such a reform but has met with stiff opposition from ultra-Orthodox leaders.

Mr. Kahana has also tried to promote a plan to narrow the scope of the Law of Return to exclude the non-Jewish grandchildren of a Jew and reduce the number of non-Jewish immigrants, but he found little support for the proposal in the current government.

Ms. Rif and other activists met last week with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and urged him “not to repeat the mistakes of the 90s,” including failures in integrating new immigrants into the work force, which led doctors and engineers to take cleaning jobs to make a living.

For the dozens of new immigrants from Ukraine being put up at Jerusalem’s Caesar Hotel, it was hard to think further than a day ahead. Many had left behind elderly parents, as well as husbands, brothers and sons of draft age who could not leave the country.

Viacheslav Kolpaka, 65, a physician from Kyiv, had come with his wife, Svitlana, and a teenage daughter, Daria. One son was already living in Israel. The other was unable to leave Ukraine.

“How can a person feel who left their home, everything they had collected in life, and fled with only the clothes on their back?” Dr. Kolpaka said. His hope, he said, was to be able contribute to his new home by working in his profession.