New people with old stories are sitting on the benches in Nahariya, the beach town in northern Israel where my parents live. One woman sits in a park near the Jewish Agency’s immigrant absorption center, holding her smartphone and crying as another woman’s voice says on the speaker from Ukraine, “There are fatalities in Kharkiv.” A crew from the TV news is there to interview these first arrivals, and for an Israeli watching, it seems like headlines and history at once. Kyiv, Lviv, Moscow, the Jewish Agency. Is it the 1990s, or the 1930s? Another woman, Tatyana, embraces two of her three children, fresh from the airport. Her eldest son stayed behind to fight near Dnipro. “It’s a miracle we made it here,” she says.
Israelis are as glued to the war in Ukraine as the rest of the Western world, so involved in the extraordinary course of events that most of us haven’t yet considered the most immediate way this is going to manifest itself here: in a new wave of aliyah, “ascent,” the word we like to use for immigration. On Sunday three planes landed with 300 people, and it’s only beginning. Some estimates say 10,000 are coming, some say 10 times that; some, like the Interior Minister, say it could be hundreds of thousands and won’t be limited to people from Ukraine.
The old Zionist absorption machinery—ignored by nearly all Israelis nearly all of the time, though it’s more or less the reason the country exists and the reason we’re all here—is creaking back into motion. Israel will try to work its narrative magic, issuing the newcomers a story of strength that obscures their weakness, telling them they’re not homeless but home and that they’re not refugees but olim, “those who ascend,” masters of their own fate. This story is one of the secrets of the country’s success. A version of it is shared by everyone else in this town: the original Germans, the Moroccans and Tunisians, the Romanians, the earlier Russians and Ukrainians, the Ethiopians. The rooms at the absorption center probably still smell of injera. That’s why, although Elena and Tatyana may never have been here before, they somehow don’t seem out of place.
Roman Polonsky, the Jewish Agency’s man in charge of the countries of the former Soviet Union, was born 67 years ago outside Odesa, Ukraine—the target, as I write these lines, of an approaching Russian naval force. When we spoke he was rushing from Israel to Budapest to help get people out of his former country. Growing up in the Soviet Union with a mix of Ukrainians, Russians, Moldovans, and Jews, he said, the idea of a Russia-Ukraine war would have seemed “far less likely than an alien invasion from Mars.” He moved to Israel in 1990, when he was 35, at the beginning of the great aliyah that brought more than a million people here as the Soviet world collapsed. (All the newcomers became known collectively as “Russians,” even through a third were from Ukraine and another third from the smaller Soviet republics; it will be interesting to see if the distinction between Russians and Ukrainians now catches on.)
There are 10 Jewish Agency emissaries at the different border crossings from Ukraine into Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova, trying to get the buses through after their journeys from the burning cities. The agency has rented 2,100 hotel rooms in those four countries to put people up as they transit to the airport. Some of the cash is coming from evangelical Christians via the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Refugees are showing up at the border with almost nothing. Polonsky was in Ukraine in 2014 in the early stages of the creeping Russian takeover, when some Jews escaped Donetsk for Israel. “But that was small,” he said. “What’s happening now is at a completely different scale.” More than a million Ukrainians have already fled. At the beginning of the war the agency opened an emergency hotline run out of the organization’s venerable Jerusalem headquarters, the building where crowds celebrated the founding of Israel in 1948, with Golda Meir wishing everyone “mazel tov” from the balcony. More than 6,000 people called the hotline from Ukraine in the first 72 hours. Most wanted to ask about immigration.
Adult men are subject to Ukraine’s draft and can’t leave, so most of the people reaching agency emissaries at the borders are women, children, and the elderly. Polonsky had 60 Ukrainian Jewish teenagers at a conference for camp counselors in Budapest when the fighting broke out and they realized they were stranded. They have no idea when they’ll ever go home, and are headed for Israel instead, with only the belongings they packed for a short trip. That’s just one crisis on his list for the next few days. There are about 200,000 people in Ukraine eligible for Israeli citizenship, a group that includes people married to Jews and anyone with a Jewish grandparent. He and his team have a list of 24,000 names of people who’ve participated in Jewish Agency programs like summer camps and Sunday schools, and they’re trying to figure out where everyone is. They’re also allocating funds for security in the Jewish communities that are staying put—Ukraine’s streets are now flooded with weapons, and robbery will grow with the shortages and the breakdown of order. Things aren’t yet as bad as they’re going to get. “So we’re not sleeping,” he said.
It’s not just Ukraine. The same hotline has fielded several thousand immigration inquiries from people in Russia proper, and in the Russian satellite of Belarus. Russia’s economy could sink. People understand that the decade or two of relative quiet in the Russian “sphere of influence,” a time in which Jewish life stabilized and even flowered in small ways, may be ending.
Alex Rif was born in Chernivtsi, Ukraine, in 1986. She has a brother in Kazan, Russia. She came to Israel as a child, an experience she documented in a book of piercing and often angry Hebrew poems called Silly Girl of the Regime, and is one of the brains behind the One Million Lobby, which aims to look out for the interests of Israel’s “Russians.”
Rif lives in Tel Aviv. Back in Chernivtsi, refugees are flooding the city, and goods are running out in the stores. Across the border in Russia, her brother can no longer withdraw money from the bank. He’s not ready to leave, but it’s getting harder to find flights out as foreign companies cut their ties. Russians are worried, she said, not only about external isolation, but that a new Iron Curtain is about to be imposed internally by the Putin regime. She thinks a lot about the ancient Jewish question: When is it time to go? New events that feel old: If you’re looking for a possible summary of Jewish life, that’s one.
Rif believes it’s easy to see what’s coming: “We’re looking at a huge wave of immigration to Israel.” No one thought a million people would come in the 1990s, she pointed out, but they did—proportionally, it was as if the United States absorbed the populations of both Holland and France. She and her colleagues are pushing the government to plan for the long term, beyond housing the new arrivals for a few weeks. But the long term has never been Israel’s strong suit. The Knesset’s Absorption Committee, which could be coordinating the effort, doesn’t even exist at the moment because of political infighting. Multiple government agencies are at cross purposes. There’s a tortured debate about whether Israel should focus efforts solely on refugees who are Jewish, and about what we owe those who aren’t. Some incoming Ukrainians are getting hassled or detained by clerks at the airport. The government has relaxed entry requirements for olim and rented hotel rooms. But the real question is what happens after that.
Everyone remembers the time in the 1990s when newly arrived Soviet doctors and engineers worked menial jobs, when new arrivals were sometimes humiliated by an inflexible Orthodox religious establishment skeptical of their Judaism. Israelis from the former Soviet Union who aren’t Jewish according to religious law—about a third of them—still can’t even get married in the state where they’re citizens, which has no civil marriage. “We have to understand that Israel isn’t the only option,” Rif said. “We’re good at bringing people. But the question will be if we can convince them to stay.” In the end, the last wave of immigrants from places like Odesa and Chernivtsi changed Israel for good, and for the better—the country we have is unimaginable without them. As Polonsky and Rif demonstrate, the last wave is here to absorb the next one. Israelis can do little about the course of this war, but our absorption centers will be one barometer of how the tragedy plays out.