A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February, Arina Asherov, 21, left her parents behind in Kharkiv and boarded a train heading west to Lviv together with her younger sister. From there, they made their way to Warsaw by bus, boarding a plane to Israel a week later.
The war caught Alexandra Katsirova in Budapest, where she was attending a seminar for Jewish Agency youth leaders. The 20-year-old, who hails from the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, had been scheduled to fly back home on February 24, the day the war broke out. Instead, she remained in the Hungarian capital for another month and a half, volunteering with Jewish refugees from Ukraine, before she too boarded a flight to Israel. She has not seen her parents or younger sister since.
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Valeriaa Aizenberh, 20, was halfway through her language studies program at university when the war broke out. In early April, at the nudging of her parents, she took a 19-hour bus ride from her hometown of Kryvyi Rih to Budapest, and from there boarded a flight to Tel Aviv a few days later.
Eighteen-year-old Volodymyr Tkachenko landed in Israel the first week of March, having left his older brother behind in Kyiv (his father is waiting out the war in Poland and his mother in Sweden). He had been studying to become a chef and does not know whether he will ever complete his certification.
These newly minted Israelis now all live under one roof: They are among 60 young immigrants from Ukraine being housed at the Jewish Agency absorption center in Carmiel, a city in northern Israel. They are participating in a special program for young Ukrainians who immigrated to Israel on their own that includes intensive Hebrew lessons and preparation for the army.
Even the most veteran among them hasn’t been in the country longer than six months, but in November they will have the opportunity to exercise their most important right as Israeli citizens: voting in an election.
Israel will hold a general election on November 1 – its fifth in less than four years. As a result, many of their young Israeli cohorts will be going to the polls for their third, fourth or even fifth time.
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That will not be the case for these newcomers, however. Which is why for them, at least, it could be considered a landmark moment: a first-of-its-kind opportunity to make their voices heard, shape the political future of their newly adopted country, engage in the democratic process and promote issues they care about.
But there is probably nothing further from their minds these days. Between missing families and friends left behind, struggling to learn Hebrew, preparing for induction into the Israeli army and coping with culture shock, these young Ukrainian immigrants have had little, if any, time to think about the election – let along figure out who’s who in the Israeli political system or how it works.
“I don’t want to vote just for the sake of voting,” says Aizenberh. “I don’t know the names of the parties here, I’ve never been particularly interested in Israeli politics, and I don’t think I’ll have enough time to learn what I need to know before the election.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by quite a few of the residents of this absorption center.
“Most of them are still clueless about Israeli politics,” says its director, Chedva Moskovitch, noting that the system in Israel is very different from that in Ukraine, where voters cast a separate ballot for the president.
“They are also still in a state of shock from having to leave their families at such short notice, so this is not something that concerns them greatly at this point,” she adds.
‘I don’t understand anything’
According to figures published last week by the Central Bureau of Statistics, between February 24 and the end of July, 12,175 immigrants from Ukraine arrived in Israel. About half of them arrived during March and April, and nearly two-thirds of them were women. With rare exceptions, the Ukrainian government has prohibited men from leaving the country, which explains the gender imbalance.
Tkachenko says he has no intention of exercising his right to vote in November. “What would be the point?” he asks. “I don’t understand anything about the system here and wouldn’t even be able to name one party.”
What does excite him, though, is the prospect of joining the Israeli army. “I definitely want to enlist as soon as possible, but I haven’t yet decided what I want to do in the military.”
Katsirova says she’ll vote in the November election only if she feels she can make an informed decision by then. “Right now, I don’t understand anything,” she says.
Of greater concern to her these days is being able to complete the bachelor’s degree in languages she had begun in Ukraine. “I’m hoping to continue my studies at the University of Haifa,” says the new immigrant.
Asherov could be considered an exception among her peers. She is determined to vote in her first Israeli election and says she is even excited about the opportunity. “From my experience in Ukraine,
this is something very important,” she says, noting that this would not be her first time in a polling place. She voted for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the 2019 election and seems quite proud of her choice.
But no, she has not yet decided which party will win her vote in Israel, because for now she is unfamiliar with their platforms. When asked what will determine how she votes, she cites one key issue: the likelihood that the rest of her family will be approved for aliyah.
“I really want my parents to join me here in Israel, and they are both eligible under the Law of Return,” says Asherov. “But I have one grandmother who is not, and I’m afraid that if she isn’t allowed to come to Israel with them, my parents will stay behind.”
Under the Law of Return, individuals with at least one Jewish grandparent are eligible to immigrate, as are their spouses.
As Election Day approaches, says Moskovitch, the absorption center will hold a special workshop for the young Ukrainian immigrants aimed at introducing them to the Israeli political system and explaining the differences between the many parties.
“We obviously aren’t going to tell them who to vote for, just like we wouldn’t tell them what bank or health care provider they should choose,” she says. “But many of them already have relatives here, whom I’m sure will be trying to influence them in these decisions.”