Israel’s treatment of non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees fleeing from Russia’s invasion has triggered an angry backlash which could see Kyiv cancelling visa waivers for Israeli citizens travelling to the war-torn country for the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the city of Uman. Thousands of Israelis take part in the Jewish New Year visit to the tomb of the revered Hasidic leader Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.
Ukrainian officials are currently holding discussions with the Israeli foreign and interior ministries. While the Ukrainians are not setting an ultimatum, if talks are unsuccessful Kyiv will “consider reciprocity” prior to Rosh Hashanah, Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk told Haaretz. He hinted that Jewish pilgrims may face restrictions on entering his country.
A visa waiver “depends,” explained Korniychuk. “Maybe [the Israelis] will listen to us.” He added that most Ukrainians ineligible for citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return have already left the country, and called the Israeli restrictions “an artificial problem which has been created.”
Enacted in 1950 following the ethnic cleansing of more half of the native Palestinian population, the Law of Return enshrined an immigration policy based on race alone. It granted Jews from across the world the right to settle in any part of Palestine, including illegal settlements, despite not having any direct connection to the land. Some six million Palestinian refugees, however, have the legitimate right to return to their land under international law, but are denied that right by Israel.
While Palestinians have been the main target, the discriminatory effect of the Law of Return has caused grief for thousands of non-Jewish Ukrainians fleeing war. In contrast to the vast majority fleeing the Russian invasion who have crossed into Europe and have been granted refugee status, those who fled to Israel have faced discrimination because of the country’s inherent racism.
Ukrainian Jews fleeing the war face no discrimination and are automatically granted the right to stay in Israel. Non-Jewish Ukrainians, however, face the prospect of being forced to return to their home country. According to Haaretz, from the beginning of Russia’s invasion, of the more than 21,000 refugees not covered by the Law of Return who have entered Israel, only 14,500 were still in the country by the beginning of June. The others, it is believed, have left for Europe (where they get legal status and benefits) or have returned home. Those who remain in Israel are not deemed to be refugees, and the government has not encouraged them to seek refugee status.
In March, Korniychuk slammed Israel’s racist immigration policy. He said that it is “completely insane”, and urged the authorities in the apartheid state to accept non-Jews from Ukraine.