As Israel takes in Ukrainian Jews, some ask: Should it do more?

by Dina Kraft, CSM Contributor from United States

148280Diana Bukhman sits between her two sons, Rafik (left) and Issac, in the Jerusalem hotel where they are staying, March 23, 2022. The single mother from Odesa is one of more than 7,000 Ukrainians who have fled their country and found refuge in Israel.Dina Kraft

March 28, 2022

In some ways Diana Bukhman is still in her Odesa, even as her two young sons bounce around her in slippered feet in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel, their new temporary home.

Her green eyes sparkle as she describes the Ukrainian port city where she was born, with its landmark opera house, night club scene, and her beloved apartment building in the center of town where she has lived most of her life, as have five generations of her family.

Her parents are still there, refusing to leave even as they insisted that she did. They packed her bags for her when she was too immobilized with the shock of leaving to do so, then took her and her boys to the bus that would transport them and other members of the Jewish community to the border of Romania.

She; her sons, Issac, age 9, and Rafik, age 8; and the others on the bus, including older men and women and the passengers’ cats and dogs, became part of the largest wave of European refugees since World War II.

“Dad, what should I do if they shoot on us?” she asked her father, a well-known photographer in Odesa, as they climbed onto the bus.

He instructed her to cover her sons’ bodies with her own, and then to grab her suitcase to shield herself. About 12 hours later as they approached the border, at the sound of shelling, she found herself scrambling to do just that.

“Now I’m living in the moment, hour to hour,” says Ms. Bukhman. “When the boys go to sleep I take a shower and I cry and cry. I wake up in the middle of the night and realize I’m in a hotel. In the morning I wake up, and have to be strong. I have no choice.”

148282Diana Bukhman's parents say goodbye to their grandsons, ahead of their journey from Odesa, Ukraine, to the Romanian border, en route to Israel. Courtesy of Diana Bukhman

Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s interior minister, initially set a policy that those non-Jewish refugees allowed to come to Israel would be limited in number, and would have to pay a deposit to enter. A public backlash ensued, including an appeal from the Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, and the policy was reversed to let in relatives of Israelis.

Israel already has a large immigrant population from Ukraine. And some 20,000 non-Jewish Ukrainians, in the country as foreign workers, have been allowed to stay on temporarily.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, has been among those asking Israel to be more generous in opening its doors.

“We are asking for your help,” he said in addressing Israel’s parliament last week, noting his people were now scattered, looking for refuge. “They are looking for security. They are looking for a way to stay in peace. As you once searched.”

Debate over core values

Mr. Zelenskyy’s appeal goes to the heart of Israel’s identity as a state founded as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution, and hits at a core question the country is wrestling with: how to define Jewish values in responding to the current crisis. In part the response has pitted a religious right against a more secular left.

On the right, especially, there have been warnings that a massive arrival of non-Jews into Israel would endanger the Jewish character of the state. Within the broad government itself there are such cautionary voices, like that of Ms. Shaked, who is from the right-wing Yamina party, but also Tomer Moskowitz, who heads Israel’s Immigration Authority.

He told Yediot Ahronot, a popular Israeli newspaper, “They say I discriminate among refugees? I say openly that I discriminate. Israel needs to discriminate for the benefit of those eligible to immigrate. That’s why it was created.”

Reflecting on what makes a “Jewish” outlook or character, Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli author and journalist at Haaretz, a left-wing newspaper, issued a somewhat barbed tweet that reveals the emotional depth to the debate.

“There are various ways to define the ‘Jewish character,’” he wrote. “There are those who are self-confident in the resilience of Israeli society and the original Jewish culture created here, and are therefore full of compassion and hospitality toward providing refuge. There are those whose Jewish identity is so haunted, hollow, and informed by exile, that the specter of several thousand refugees makes them tremble with fear.”

According to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, 60% of Israelis support the government’s policy of taking in refugees who are Jewish. On taking in refugees whether or not they are Jewish, 51.1% of those surveyed were opposed and 44% were in favor. According to the survey, 74% of Israelis on the left supported admitting all refugees from Ukraine, compared with 31% on the right.

148282Courtesy of Diana BukhmanDiana Bukhman sitting between her sleeping sons, Rafik, on her right, and Issac, on the bus from Odesa, Ukraine, to the Romanian border, en route to Israel.

Strategic concerns

Israel’s anguished debate over immigration versus rescuing refugees is interwoven with the strategic question of overall support for Ukraine, which is complicated by Israel’s desire to maintain a working relationship with Russia.

Commentators say Israel has to walk a diplomatic tightrope because of Russia’s power-broker status in Syria, where Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group that is an avowed enemy of Israel, is seen as posing a threat.

As a consequence it has rejected Ukrainian pleas for arms and refused to join the international embargo against Russia. But it has also mediated between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Zelenskyy, and has sent Ukraine considerable humanitarian aid, including a large field hospital now operating in western Ukraine.

The Jewish Agency, a semi-governmental organization, has been overseeing humanitarian and rescue operations in Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Moldova for Jewish refugees, and has housed over 8,000 to date in both Europe and Israel, including Ms. Bukhman and her sons.

A mother’s journey 

At her hotel in Jerusalem, Ms. Bukhman says she is uncomfortable discussing the policy debate on refugees, but feels fortunate.

For now, the 37-year-old single mother is still doing her job remotely, as a volunteer coordinator for Odesa’s Jewish Community Center, setting up zoom classes for kids and older adults, for everything from yoga to English lessons.

She scrolls through images on her phone. Among them, pictures of her sons saying goodbye to her parents on the bus, her father forming a heart with his hands as does one of her sons; the other is waving goodbye.

In another, her hand is pressed against the glass of the bus window, reaching out to meet her boyfriend’s hand. He remains in Ukraine, where he is part of a civilian guard assisting the police. He lives on the outskirts of Odesa, and has been sending videos of himself, booms echoing in the background.

Every time a siren sounds over Odesa, her father, ever the photographer, rushes to the balcony to see what images he can capture.

Ms. Bukhman fluctuates between checking updates from home and dealing with the bureaucracy of starting a new life in Israel.

“I feel like I know nothing, like I’m a newborn kitten, my eyes still closed. Usually when people make aliyah [Hebrew for immigration to Israel] they prepare by learning Hebrew, planning where they will live,” she says.

Page created on 5/24/2022 6:11:16 PM

Last edited 5/24/2022 6:54:49 PM

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