Opinion |

In the Face of Ukrainian Devastation, Israel Sees Economic Opportunity

Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann
An elderly Ukrainian immigrant is greeted by an Israeli minister after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, Israel, last month.
An elderly Ukrainian immigrant is greeted by an Israeli minister after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, Israel, last month.Credit: Nir Elias/Reuters
Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann

The Knesset Finance Committee held an emergency debate two weeks ago on the government’s preparations to take in the expected wave of immigration from Ukraine. Thus said committee chair MK Alex Kushnir: “We are in the midst of a crisis that affects 250,000 people [who are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return]. This is our duty, but it also our opportunity.”

Taken at face value, Kushnir’s statement could be seen as recognition of the profound idea that every crisis is an opportunity for change, development and growth. But in fact it’s a perversion of this idea. Churchill said “the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” Kushnir is no optimist. Gaining from another’s crisis isn’t optimism, if anything it’s profiteering. In his defense, he’s surrounded by “optimists” of his ilk, so maybe he can’t tell the difference.

MK Vladimir Beliak said: “We have an extraordinary opportunity, we mustn’t miss it.” The head of the Jewish Agency’s aliyah and absorption unit, Shay Felber, who attended, expanded: “We know how many workers the economy is short of. I have no doubt that if we prepare correctly, we could easily double the number of olim from [Ukraine].” MK Zvi Hauser explained that investing 5 billion shekels ($1.54 billion) in aliyah from Ukraine would yield 500 billion in a few years, adding: “We mustn’t miss a strategic, economic and social opportunity,”

It isn’t the first time Israel has turned the crisis of others into an opportunity. Kushnir noted how “in 2014, during the terror attacks in France, Israel launched a national plan to enable all French Jews to come to Israel.” Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman did call on the Jews of France and Europe to come to Israel. Yes, Israel is a national home for the Jewish people, it’s open to aliyah and it’s good that Jews feel they have a safe place in the world if, God forbid, disaster strikes. But that doesn’t give the government the right to call on other countries’ citizens to immigrate to Israel just because they’re Jews, certainly not openly.

Many warned that such a call could again raise the dual loyalty canard. France’s then-President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls fumed, and for good reason. But the French leadership displayed greater sensitivity than Israel’s government. “If 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be a failure,” Valls said at the time. But where the French see a failure of the French Republic, Israel’s governments see an opportunity.

If in the case of the crisis in France one could still argue that the French Jews were in the crosshairs because they're Jews, the current crisis is indifferent to the victims’ Judaism. Need we also mention that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov are Jews, and Zelenskyy’s close adviser is a former Israeli with fluent Hebrew?

Russia invaded Ukraine. All Ukrainians are under attack including Ukrainian Jews. If the “crisis” isn’t selecting its victims and the Ukrainians’ Judaism isn’t fundamental to their being under attack, then there’s something wrong and improper in Israel’s proactive aliyah campaign.

There is a grave problem here that must be addressed. It isn’t only a question of what is and what is not appropriate to say in the Israeli parliament. There is something here that touches on the roots of Zionist identity, and it’s the flip side of the coin of those who cannot bring themselves to identify with the non-Jewish refugee.

It is inconceivable that at this moment in history, when the cannons are roaring and the world is looking at the possibility that we are on the verge of World War III, people are sitting in Israel’s parliament and detecting, in that same reality, a “historic opportunity.”

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