The international missions that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett undertook this weekend don’t absolve him of responsibility for the fate of Ukrainian refugees. From the start of the Russian invasion to Monday, around 2,800 such refugees had arrived in Israel. To date, the Population and Immigration Authority has denied entry to around 130 of them.
While the total number of Ukrainian refugees is already thought to have reached more than 1.5 million and the European Union is letting them reside in its territory in security for the first three years, a double cloud of shame is forming over Israel. Not only has it not accepted people fleeing for their lives, but it has also made it hard for those it does allow to enter, demanding financial guarantees of at least 10,000 shekels ($3,000) each.
During a Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee meeting on the war in Ukraine, Bennett said that Israel “will focus on absorbing Jewish refugees.” He referred to this as a “historic mission,” but chose to restrict it to absorbing “Jews fleeing from dangerous places.” “Our domestic bureaucracy must not be allowed to raise obstacles,” he rhapsodized. But in the same breath, he opted not to say anything about Ukrainians who aren’t Jewish. He thereby made it clear that the racist bookkeeping which Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has engaged in for the last few days wasn’t an accidental outburst.
It’s very easy to aim all the criticism at Shaked; with her offensive remarks, she makes it easy for anyone who wants to do so. “Anyone with a brain understands that we can’t continue at this rate of entry,” she complained, promising to formulate a “more balanced policy” over the next few days.
She also rejected any criticism of Israel, claiming that the country has “taken in more Ukrainians per capita since the fighting began than any Western country that doesn’t share a border with Ukraine. ... People ought to laud, praise and glorify what Israel has done on this issue.”
But with all due respect to Shaked, she is only the interior minister. She doesn’t set Israel’s refugee policy on her own. Bennett is above her; he’s the prime minister. Consequently, responsibility for Israel’s insensitive policy rests first and foremost with him. Israelis should stop being led astray by the view that there’s a good cop (Bennett) and a bad cop (Shaked).
Instead of engaging in public relations and trips around the world, Bennett would do better to concentrate on providing suitable assistance to the refugees arriving at the doorstep of the country for which he is responsible. He must make it clear to all the relevant parties that Israel has to display humanity toward non-Jews as well. It’s not enough to make declarations about absorbing refugees “for humanitarian reasons.” Israel must grant some kind of temporary legal status to non-Jewish Ukrainians, including work permits, certain social benefits and health insurance.