View article on The Jerusalem Post.
Jewish community leaders from eastern Ukraine on Thursday praised Israel’s decision to ease immigration requirements for refugees fleeing their country’s ongoing civil war, painting the move as a much needed humanitarian gesture.
Last week, the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Borders Authority issued an internal directive relaxing rules requiring certain documents from prospective immigrants from Donetsk, Luhansk and other cities occupied by Russian-backed separatists.
According to the website of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community, which cited the directive, those seeking refuge from Ukraine’s industrial east will be exempted from pre-translating certain documents and will not have to submit documentation attesting to their lack of a criminal record due to the difficulty of obtaining such papers in a war zone.
The process of someone requesting citizenship while physically in Israel can take up to several months, but someone from eastern Ukraine will be taken care of immediately, Immigration Authority spokeswoman Sabine Hadad told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“If he [the immigrant] is missing paperwork the directive says he won’t be turned down,” she explained. “It’s not that we don’t request the documents. We request the documents, but if someone comes and doesn’t have it, it doesn’t disqualify him.”
The decision, according to Roman Polonsky, the director of the Jewish Agency’s unit for Russian-speaking Jews, is “very welcome.”
Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirschenbaum, the driving force behind the new regulations, “understood the problem” very well and took action to “make it easier for people in this very difficult situation to come to Israel,” Polonsky said.
“Israel has solved a technical obstacle that would not allow people from the war zone to go to Israel in case they wanted to so that’s a great thing,” enthused Zelig Brez, director of the Dnepropetrovsk Jewish community.
Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, the head of the Donetsk Jewish community, was likewise upbeat about the changes, telling the Post that “people left their houses and livelihoods and [Israel must] do what they can to make it as easy as possible for them.
Approximately half of Donetsk’s prewar Jewish population of between 10,000 people and 11,000 people had fled, according to the rabbi.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is providing services to around 5,000 Jews in eastern Ukraine as well as another 2,000 displaced by the fighting, the organization announced this week.
According to Vishedski, who fled to Kiev by way of Mariupol with several hundred other Jews some months ago, Jewish institutions in Donetsk remain open, with hundreds coming to the synagogue for hot meals on a daily basis.
A similar situation is taking place in Luhansk, where hundreds of members of the Jewish community recently stood in line to receive aid, according to reports.
Rabbi Aryeh Shvartz, who is running the Donetsk community while Vishedski grapples with providing for a refugee population dispersed throughout the country, recently told the hassidic website chabad.org that between 80 percent and 90% of the city’s Jews had gone, leaving behind mostly those unable or unwilling to leave their homes.
Jewish Agency officials in Ukraine have noted that the issue of paperwork has been a vexing one for Ukrainian Jews, many of whom do not have passports and have left documents attesting to their Jewish identity at home.
Speaking to the Post in September, Alexandrina Zheludev, a recent immigrant, recalled her parents telling her that they had returned home after taking flight at the behest of Israeli consular officials in order to collect documents necessary to obtain Israeli citizenship.
Earlier this year, the government approved a measure that would provide escapees from high-risk areas such as eastern Ukraine with a NIS 15,000 grant over and above the standard absorption basket, as well as vocational aid.
The government has also earmarked NIS 2 million for the rehabilitation of Jews displaced by the conflict, which will be distributed through the JDC.
“This is a very sensitive time for the Jewish community in Ukraine; therefore much of the aid needs to be delivered through non-conventional channels,” a source with knowledge of the project told the Post in October.
Immigration from Donetsk between January and October was up by 1,019 compared to the same period in 2013.
A total of 4,465 Ukrainian Jews made the move during that same period, an increase of 178%, according to the Jewish Agency.
“I am glad that Israel is implementing these procedures. I hope that it will seriously be helpful to those Jews seeking to make aliya,” said Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich. “Although aliya has tripled according to the report, the numbers are still relatively low considering the amount of Jews affected by the fighting.”
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is sponsoring a planeload of immigrants due to arrive in Israel next week.