Opinion |

Israel's Health Minister: We Won't Turn Our Back on Ukrainian Refugees

We have a moral obligation to extend a hand to those fleeing war. Unfortunately, shameful obstacles are being put before the few who are knocking at our gates, but were not born into the right religion

Nitzan Horowitz
Nitzan Horowitz
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Ukrainian refugees arriving at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport, Mar. 10, 2022
Ukrainian refugees arriving at Ben-Gurion International Airport, last month. Make no mistake, basic health care will not lead millions of Ukrainians to flood Israel. Credit: Hadas Parush
Nitzan Horowitz
Nitzan Horowitz

Millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes because of the Russian invasion. Most of them have found shelter in neighboring countries. Europe has generously opened its gates. It has also provided them with visas for a few years, the possibility of work and subsidized housing. And yet a handful, a few thousand such refugees, are coming to Israel as well.

Some of these individuals are Jews and are eligible to do this under the Law of Return, but some are not Jewish. Why are they coming here? Because they have family or acquaintances here, and they want to be with them until things calm down.

I know an Israeli whose only sister lives in Ukraine, and is not Jewish. After the war broke out, the sister came to her. Where else should she go? Should we expel this refugee because she is not entitled to come to Israel under the Law of Return, and prevent her from obtaining medical attention or making a living?

Even if we were not a country founded by and for refugees, we would still have a moral obligation to extend a helping hand to those fleeing war. Unfortunately, there are some who are placing shameful obstacles before the few who are already knocking at our gates after escaping the Russian war machine, but simply were not born into the right religion.

One can only imagine the heartbreak, distress and difficulties of adjustment of people who do not speak the language here, who have left all their lives and property behind, and in some cases family as well. There is one issue that we must respond to immediately: the physical and mental health of those who have arrived in Israel. Simply put: The State of Israel must provide medical insurance to every refugee – parents, children and the elderly. That is not a gift or a “favor.” It is a basic, unconditional human right.

The truth is, I was also surprised to discover that obtaining the basic right to medical care on behalf of these refugees has encountered political obstacles, and so far the funding has not been approved to arrange for this to happen. The Interior Ministry has gone out of its way to prevent it; the Finance Ministry is dragging its feet and not transferring the (meager) funding required. The refugees are here without medical insurance, they can’t pay for private treatment and therefore refrain from asking for medical care when they need it, risking deterioration of their condition.

A situation in which Israel allows refugees to enter the country but does not provide them with medical insurance is immoral and endangers the health of the refugees and of the general public. Beyond the moral failure involved here, preventing thousands of refugees from receiving medical care could impact the health care system and the outcome could be even costlier. Refugees who do not receive proper care because they can’t afford it could get sicker, which will require the health care system to accept them in worse condition, at greater cost, endangering their lives and possibly those of the people around them. The cost of not providing care on time will only grow, in terms of health as well as morally and even financially. This is neither just nor wise.

And this struggle goes on. The system is stuck, and not by chance. Extraneous considerations prevent a solution to this simple problem, on the backs of the refugees and at the expense of their health. Some people see the health of a small number of war refugees as a “demographic danger.” Make no mistake, basic health care will not lead millions of Ukrainians to flood Israel. There’s not the slightest risk of this happening. The only threat from the foot-dragging is medical harm to those in need of treatment.

"You will aid the sick irrespective of whether they are converts or gentiles or citizens, whether they are ignominious or respected." That is the Hebrew oath that obligates members of the health care system in Israel. Doctors, medical professionals, HMO directors – are all obligated to this oath, to this basic ethical directive, and want to care for anyone who needs treatment.

It must be clear: The Israeli health care system will reject no one, certainly not war refugees whose world had collapsed around them. We must insist on this.

The writer is Israel’s minister of health.

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