Ukrainians, and Israelis who support them, gather during a protest in Tel Aviv against Russian attacks on Ukraine, on Feb. 26, 2022. A demonstrator burned his passport in response to the Russian invasion.

Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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Putin’s Aliyah Is in Danger

Natan Sharansky and others question whether the Jewish state is botching the chance to rescue and integrate a potentially valuable new wave of Russian Jewish olim fleeing repression at home

by
Armin Rosen
August 21, 2023
Ukrainians, and Israelis who support them, gather during a protest in Tel Aviv against Russian attacks on Ukraine, on Feb. 26, 2022. A demonstrator burned his passport in response to the Russian invasion.

Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

For the past decade, Israel’s relationship with Russia has rested on a series of fragile understandings rather than any deep friendship or shared vision of the world. This kind of equivocation toward Moscow became much riskier when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The U.S. pressured Israel to openly oppose Russia and send arms to Ukraine despite the Russian military’s control of the airspace over Syria, on Israel’s northern border. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict presented Israel with the unpleasant choice between angering its U.S. patron or antagonizing a country that could freeze its ability to strike covert Iranian bases or arms convoys to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

For Israel, the Ukraine invasion also brought up issues that went beyond the immediate geopolitical impact. Israel was founded to be the world’s final backstop of Jewish safety in a hostile world, which meant keeping an open immigration pathway for Jews in potential danger. The future of the estimated 500,000 Jews in Russia, some unknown number of whom might leave for Israel as the result of the crisis, became Jerusalem’s top priority with Moscow.

Shortly after the war began in early 2022, Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration created an expedited track for immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Under normal procedures, an aliyah applicant has to provide evidence they are eligible to immigrate under Israel’s Law of Return before they can leave their country of origin. The Soviet Union banned nearly all forms of Jewish communal life and organized religious practice, meaning that even before the war a would-be oleh from these three countries often didn’t have their parents’ ketubah or records of any relative’s Jewish burial on hand. An organization called Nativ, which was founded in the early 1950s as a spy network facilitating clandestine immigration from the Soviet Union to Israel, now resolves these issues by using other types of records, like family histories or evidence of participation in Jewish institutions, to confirm an aliyah applicant’s heritage. This process can sometimes take several months, and with the war endangering the life and liberty of perhaps as many as 750,000 Jews spread across the three belligerent states, Israel’s immigration authorities came up with a new alternative.

Applicants could now request to leave their home countries immediately and go through the rest of the aliyah process once they had safely reached Israeli territory. The process could start online, and the price of the plane ticket to Israel would be reimbursed once an applicant’s eligibility for aliyah was confirmed a few months later. Avichai Kahana, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, told Tablet that some 60%-65% of olim from Russia used this “one-stop shop” option between the invasion in late February 2022 and the end of that November. Use of the track declined to around 50% of applicants by the end of the year, as the Ukraine war and Russia’s internal oppression and mass mobilization went from being a fast-moving emergency to a seemingly long-term feature of the global landscape. In June only 200 out of 3,000 Russians who moved to Israel used the fast track, according to the Times of Israel.

That month, the ministry announced it was largely eliminating the expedited option. Natan Sharansky, the former head of the Jewish Agency and a dissident who became one of the icons of the Soviet aliyah movement, told Tablet he is concerned that the decision might make it more difficult for Russian Jews to flee Vladimir Putin’s wartime crackdown. “Those who I know who really had to leave because of the political situation, they all used this,” Sharansky said.

Israel’s decision to halt the expedited track might look like a political move, or the result of Russia using the safety of its Jewish citizens as leverage over Jerusalem. But the program was likely scaled back for less conspiratorial and more recognizably Israeli reasons. Israel, like much of the rest of the world, was not prepared for the consequences of the Ukraine war, which more than doubled the annual number of immigrants to the country and strained the existing absorption infrastructure. The expedited track is another illustration of how Israeli capacity can lag behind the country’s higher aspirations. “Israel always wants aliyah,” said Sharansky, “but I don’t remember the case where Israel was prepared for a wave of aliyah.”

‘Israel always wants aliyah,’ said Sharansky, ‘but I don’t remember the case where Israel was prepared for a wave of aliyah.’

While the expedited track was successful in bringing people to Israel, it was less effective in getting olim to stay. According to Kahana, the unexpected rush of immigrants to Israel meant that the Aliyah Ministry had a backlog for placing new arrivals in Hebrew language and employment programs. “We couldn’t have the opportunity to give the olim the service that we always give them to help them integrate in Israel,” said Kahana. Would-be immigrants who had used the expedited track sometimes left Israel between their arrival in the country and their appointments with ministry officials. Olim who hadn’t used the track were funneled into the same queue for absorption services as those who had used it, stretching wait times for all new immigrants. “People have started to go back to Russia, and with big numbers, because we didn’t do anything to integrate,” said Kahana.

Israeli immigration officials are facing an unusual challenge. In a typical year, between 25,000 and 30,000 Jews move to Israel, seeking Israeli citizenship. In 2022, the number shot up to around 70,000, with 37,000 coming from Russia. Kahana told Tablet that another 35,000 Jews had made aliyah in the seven months of 2023, with around 3,000 immigrants arriving from Russia alone each month.

This is a dramatic increase over normal aliyah rates, but also a trickle compared to the 1.5 million Jews from the former Soviet Union who made aliyah in the early ’90s. Israel has recent experience in the mass integration of immigrants from the Russian-speaking world. “Ten to 15 years later, you could not imagine any lab, any hospital, any university without those new immigrants,” Sharansky says.

Yet even if the numbers of Russian immigrants today are far smaller than in the early ’90s, the challenges for both the immigrants themselves and for their prospective host are still daunting. The latest aliyah is the result of a war and a crackdown that put potential immigrants in immediate physical danger. Speed became an emphasis for immigration officials: Ukrainian refugees who had arrived in neighboring countries without documents could be placed on flights to Israel just by proving they had participated in any of the Jewish Agency’s programs in Ukraine or had relatives in Israel. As Kahana put it, “we couldn’t do our job, because we had a new job”—the old job was to help at most 30,000 immigrants build a new life in the Jewish state each year; the new job was to rapidly resettle tens of thousands of people in the midst of the worst European security crisis in generations. Putin also wields the implicit threat of closing the country’s borders, refusing to let Jews emigrate, or targeting Jewish institutions inside the country. The Russian government initiated frivolous legal proceedings against the Jewish Agency last year, a move that effectively shut down the organization’s work in the country.

Meanwhile, the Russian immigrants of today are coming from a very different country than the ones who arrived in Israel 30 years ago. Despite its international isolation, Russia’s GDP per capita is roughly on a par with poorer EU members, like Greece and Slovakia. Many of the new immigrants to Israel own businesses and property in Moscow or St. Petersburg—they are not penniless, and they have resettlement options beyond the Jewish state. Some difficult-to-estimate number of new arrivals see the country as a temporary landing spot where they can escape Russia’s growing pariah status and wartime military conscription, or acquire new travel documents. According to the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption, over 90,000 Russians “who are not defined as immigrants” arrived in Israel between May and January of 2023, 71% of whom left the country during that span. Among the immigrants, a large number  choose to live in Tel Aviv, which is now one of the most expensive cities on earth. In contrast, the early ’90s olim were often housed in peripheral towns or temporary trailer housing.

In the ’90s Russia was a near-failed state on the brink of an economic depression, while Israel was comparatively stable. But before the Ukraine war, metropolitan Russia might have surpassed Israel in bourgeois comforts. In late 2022, a recent Russian arrival to Israel complained on social media of her inability to find pumpkin spice lattes in Tel Aviv, since the nearest Starbucks was apparently in Damascus. The posting went viral, exposing vast generational differences with older Russian olim. Yet the issue it highlighted was far from frivolous: If the availability of Starbucks really is a proxy for general quality of life for the current generation of new Israelis from Russia, there is strong potential that large numbers of these olim will eventually try their luck somewhere else. The push and pull factors for this latest mass aliyah may turn out to be weaker than in past waves, and people, capital, and information are far more mobile now than they were when the Soviet Union fell.

Israeli society must prove to these new immigrants that Israel is a viable place for them to live and work, or else the country will fail to capture the opportunities they represent. The blinkered obsession of mainstream American Jewish organizations with their own supposedly special role in Israel’s internal political crises stands in sharp contrast to the community’s engagement with the needs of Russian olim at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1980s and 1990s.

The irony of the U.S. Jewish community’s disengagement from Israel’s new post-Soviet aliyah isn’t hard to spot: If major American Jewish organizations disapprove so strongly of the political and cultural leanings of Israel’s current electorate, it is hard to imagine a better way to influence the country’s future than helping Israel integrate tens of thousands of mostly well-educated, professional, secular Russian Jews, which is a chance that is unlikely to come again anytime soon. And what could be more impeccably on-message for America’s mostly liberal-minded Jewish organizations than aiding refugees fleeing from Vladmir Putin?

Slowing the aliyah process, through decisions like ending the expedited track, means that Israel might be better equipped to integrate tens of thousands of new immigrants. But the move also could undermine the goal of getting endangered Jews to Israel in the first place. “In these conditions,” Sharanksy said, referring to increasing oppression in Russia, “I believe it is important to keep this track open … if one person thinks he’s in danger and needs to leave as quickly as possible, we have to give him such an opportunity.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.