Just over a week after the Russian army began shelling her hometown of Kyiv, Ukrainian nurse Sofiia Kruglaya found herself in a hotel near the sea in the Middle Eastern city of Tel Aviv, the grateful recipient of an offer of Israeli citizenship.

The path to safety began with a five-day journey across the border from Ukraine to Poland. In Warsaw, with no proper documentation, she sought an Israeli diplomat outside the embassy and told him she was Jewish. The diplomat put her in touch with an agency that relocates Jewish people and two days later, she arrived in the country on a chartered plane.

Under Israel’s Law of Return, anyone in the world with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible for Israeli citizenship and Kruglaya is one of almost 17,000 Ukrainian refugees — almost a third of whom are Jewish — who have arrived in Israel since the beginning of the Russian assault on their country.

With its 200,000-strong Jewish community, there are deep cultural links between Ukraine and Israel, and Israeli officials estimate that up to 50,000 Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian refugees may arrive in the next three months, with potentially double that number by the end of this year. It would be the largest single wave of immigrants entering Israel since the 1990s when more than a million Jews moved to the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister, has hailed the initiative which the government has dubbed Operation Returning Home. “This is . . . a moment for which we have been destined, and for which the State of Israel was established,” he told his cabinet this month. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has been less bullish, claiming in a speech to Israeli lawmakers that Israel seemed “indifferent” to the plight of his people and that it needed to do more,

Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett welcomes a group of Ukrainian orphans on their arrival in Tel Aviv
Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett welcomes a group of Ukrainian orphans on their arrival in Tel Aviv © Maya Alleruzzo/Reuters

Analysts credit the 1990s wave with altering the social, political and economic make-up of Israel, revitalising its economy and powering a political shift to the right. “The sheer number of people was massive — like demographically fitting all of France inside the US. These immigrants were extremely well educated, primarily in the fields of engineering, medicine, and tech, which spurred on the Israeli economy. And politically it pushed the country rightward. You almost won’t find immigrants from the former Soviet Union voting for leftwing parties,” said Alex Selsky, a former adviser to prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

With little support for Russia’s president Vladimir Putin among the existing Russian-Israeli community, there are not expected to be tensions between the communities. This wave, while much smaller, also brings challenges and some initial controversy over restrictions on non-Jewish Ukrainians. Interior minister Ayelet Shaked scrapped a more restrictive entry policy earlier this month after a video showing non-Jewish Ukrainians being held for hours at an Israeli airport, with children sleeping on baggage carousels, prompted a public outcry.

“We saw these pictures in black and white, in the concentration camps; that’s how we looked in Auschwitz. Should these people be restricted via quotas? It’s not moral, and it’s not Jewish,” said Nachman Shai, diaspora affairs minister, during a visit to the Ukrainian border.

The new, more expansive plan provides unlimited entry to Israel for any Ukrainian with relatives already in the country, who are required to host them. The prewar Ukrainian community, most of whom were economic migrants, is estimated to total 20,000. A 5,000-person quota is still in place for those without family in Israel. The quota and other bureaucratic hurdles are being challenged in court by civil society groups, who want all restrictions lifted. Shaked has defended her policy. “We’re first and foremost the national home of the Jewish people and we’ll focus most of our efforts on those eligible for the Law of Return,” she said earlier this month. “We’re opening our gates, but not in an unlimited way.”

It remains unclear how non-Jewish refugees, at present ineligible for government support or official status, will support themselves financially on only temporary tourist visas.

“So long as these people don’t have work permits, the government forces them into non-legal work and then it’s easier to deport them,” said Shai Cohen, director of the Israel Alliance, a civil society group aiding the refugees. “The goal is to limit and deter the number of people arriving here. The government’s prism is one of illegal immigration, not asylum seeking.” 

Kruglaya, who arrived on March 6, was on one of the first flights to land in Israel. She and her fellow immigrants were met at Ben Gurion Airport with a red carpet, music and a mass of media. From there, the 23-year-old was taken to a government-subsidised hotel, a hub for well-wishers.

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The hotel lobby on a recent weekday was filled with volunteers. Members of a youth group escorted children to a park while local government workers provided guidance on how to sign up to the national health system, enrol in Hebrew language classes and open a bank account. The business centre was filled with donated toys, clothes and toiletries.

“I didn’t really expect such a warm reception, so many people want to help,” said Larisa, 53, a university lecturer and mother of three who also stayed at the hotel. She fled to Poland after the bombing started with the women in her extended family but declined to provide her last name since her husband and son are still in Kyiv, taking part in the war effort, after Ukraine banned men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country.

Kruglaya and Larisa were eligible to remain at the hotel in Tel Aviv for two weeks. The government, already facing a nationwide housing shortage, plans to provide rental support and temporary accommodation.

For Kruglaya, these problems seem manageable. Pulling up a video on her phone from her Kyiv neighbourhood, now reduced to rubble, she wondered aloud whether her apartment was still standing. “My friends and relatives are still there and I hope to one day meet them again, alive,” she said. “But I’m trying to move forward here [in Israel]. I may have a family in future, a life. I’ll likely return to Ukraine as a visitor.”

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