Israel Braced for Influx of Ukrainian Immigrants Fleeing War, but More Russians Made Aliyah This Year

Contrary to forecasts of a huge immigration wave from Ukraine since Russia invaded it, Israel found that people are less likely to flee war than 'a regime that is starting to look more and more totalitarian'

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Immigrants from Ukraine arrive at Ben-Gurion International Airport, earlier this year.
Immigrants from Ukraine arrive at Ben-Gurion International Airport, earlier this year.Credit: Emil Salman
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The Russian invasion of Ukraine, as expected, led to a sharp increase in immigration to Israel from the country under attack. More surprising, perhaps, is the upsurge in aliyah from the country that started the war, which has been even more pronounced.

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According to internal figures of the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, in the first six months of the year, 11,906 Ukrainians immigrated to Israel – nearly four times the number in all of 2021. But the number of Russians who came during that same period was nearly 40 percent higher than the number of Ukrainians — totaling 16,598. It was also more than double the number of Russian who came in all of last year.

The figures show that Ukrainian aliyah peaked in March, the first month of the invasion, and has dropped dramatically every month since. By contrast, immigration from Russia has been relatively stable, averaging 3,500-4,500 new arrivals every month.

Right after the Russian invasion in late February, Israel began bracing for a massive influx and immigrants from Ukraine. It even set up a special “aliyah express” track for new arrivals from Ukraine that allowed them to board their flights to Israel without completing all the necessary paperwork.

According to Benny Hadad, head of aliyah operations at the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews – an organization active in bringing Jews from Ukraine to Israel – most of those eligible for aliyah who could have left Ukraine fled in the initial weeks. “There are large sections of Ukraine right now that are relatively safe, so people are staying put,” he said.

By contrast, he noted, aliyah from Russia is still going strong because “people there aren’t fleeing war, but rather, a regime that is starting to look more and more totalitarian.”

Ukrainian immigrants at an underground parking lot turned into a food distribution center, in the northern Israeli city of Nof Hagalil.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Another reason often cited for the reluctance of Ukrainians to depart for Israel is that this move often requires splitting up their families since adult men, for the most part, have been prohibited from leaving the country.

Russia and Ukraine have long been the major drivers of aliyah to Israel, and this was even more pronounced this year: In the first six months of the year, immigration from these two countries along accounted for more than 80 percent of the total.

The Law of Return stipulates that any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible for aliyah, but that does not mean they are necessarily recognized as Jewish in Israel. Indeed, the majority of the new arrivals from Russia and Ukraine in recent years are not considered halakhically Jewish – that is, they were not born to Jewish mothers – and are, therefore, prohibited from marrying in the country.

According to the Aliyah Ministry figures, in the first six months of the year, a total of 35,031 immigrants arrived in Israel. That compares with 27,982 in all of 2021. Neither 2021 nor 2020 are considered good years for comparison because of the global pandemic, which slowed down aliyah considerably during this period. In 2019, the year that preceded its onset, a total of 35,010 immigrants arrived in Israel – virtually the exact same number as in the first six months of 2022. The surge this year, it would seem then, stems exclusively from the war in Ukraine. In 2021, a total of 27,982 immigrants arrived in the country – fewer than in the first six months of this year.

For Israeli immigration officials, a key highlight of last year’s aliyah was the arrival of 4,038 immigrants from the United States – the highest number from that country in nearly 50 years. Based upon figures for the first half of this year, however, that appears to have been a fluke – related primarily to the fact that many Americans who had planned on coming on aliyah in 2020 had to postpone their move for a year because of Covid.

The number of Americans who moved to Israel in January-June 2022 totaled 947 – a drop of nearly one-third compared with the same period last year.

One country outside the former Soviet Union that continues to supply growing numbers of immigrants to Israel is Argentina. The number of Argentinean Jews who moved to Israel in the first six months of this year totaled 628 – up nearly two-thirds from the same period last year. That compares with 920 immigrants in all of 2021 and just 451 in pre-pandemic 2019.

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