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Welcoming Ukrainian Refugees

The State of Israel was founded so that Jews in peril will never again be stateless. But what about non-Jews who need a shelter? Here, Prime Minister Menachem Begin set the course.
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March 9, 2022
Omar Marques / stringer / Getty Images

One of the books that Impressed me immensely when I was young was Arthur D. Morse’s “While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy.” Morse, a historian of World War Two and a CBS producer, blamed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration for failing to act when there was a possibility of rescuing substantial numbers of Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. Only in January, 1944, after handing Roosevelt a damning memorandum titled “Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews,” Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgentau, Jr. managed to force Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board, which was too little, too late.

The State of Israel was founded so that Jews in peril will never again be stateless. But what about non-Jews who need a shelter? Here, Prime Minister Menachem Begin set the course. After winning the election in May 1977 and becoming Prime Minister, Begin heard that an Israeli cargo ship picked up some refugees fleeing in a boat from Vietnam, which had fallen in the hands of the Communists two years before. The first decision of the new Begin government was to grant these refugees – 66 in number, with some 240 more coming later – Israeli citizenship. To President Carter, Begin said: “We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War … traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused … Therefore it was natural … to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel.”

In 1993, as spokesman of the Rabin government, I was part of a mission that flew to Croatia to airlift to Israel 84 Bosnian refugees…I’ll never forget those gloomy faces. 

Then, in 1993, as spokesman of the Rabin government, I was part of a mission that flew to Split, Croatia, to airlift to Israel 84 Bosnian refugees.  Since the Serb invasion of Sarajevo in April 1992, thousands of Bosnians have been killed and close to a million fled their country westward, mainly to Croatia, generating heart-breaking scenes similar to the ones we see today in the Ukraine. I’ll never forget those gloomy faces of the people who had been brutally torn out of their homes, heading for the unknown in a foreign land. I visited them later, in Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, their first home in Israel. They were overwhelmed by the warm welcome, but insisted that for them it was only a temporary haven, and hoped to return to their home once the war ended. Many, indeed, went back, perhaps not back home, but to other European countries.

Finally, in 2007, following the Darfur crisis, the government of Israel decided to grant refuge to a group of 500 asylum seekers who had snuck into Israel through Sinai. More arrived over the years, and only now, pressed by the Israeli Supreme Court, the Israeli Interior Ministry is granting temporary residence status to 2,445 Sudanese asylum seekers. 

Looking at all those numbers, they are really negligible in a country of 10 million people. Still, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked raised the alarm, warning that of the 2,034 Ukrainians who have arrived in Israel since the start of the war, around 10 percent were eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. She predicts that if the current pace continues, there will be 15,000 refugees within the month.  

First, the Ukrainian refugees seek only temporary shelter, until they can make further decisions. They can sign a contract that they will leave once they have a place to go to. And second, if worse comes to worst, would some thousands of non-Jewish Ukrainians – who would be embraced by the large Jewish Ukrainian community in Israel – endanger the demographic balance in Israel? The same Ayelet Shaked, a staunch supporter of Greater Israel, who is happily annexing 330,000 Palestinians who live in Eastern Jerusalem, and who hate us with passion, is suddenly concerned with a few Ukrainians?

Yet all these arithmetic exercises miss the point. Israel, which for decades reminded the world of its apathy when Jews suffered, should open its gates to Ukrainian refugees, because it’s the right, moral thing to do.


Uri Dromi is the Founder and CEO of the Jerusalem Press Club.

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