(March 28, 2022 / JNS) In an area of the world where being a Jew once meant peril, it now can save your life.
“My grandmother was a pediatric doctor, and then she took a second specialty of cardiology, and she was working in practice as department head in a hospital. But she did not get the title of the position because that was too much for a Jew to be granted,” said Ambassador Simona Halperin, head of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mission at the Ukrainian-Polish border.
“And I was reminded of that this week when I saw thousands of people standing at the borders, trying to escape the tragedy in Ukraine. And they stand there day and night, and there is one word that can help them. And that is if they say I am a Jew because there is someone then that takes their call,” she said.
“I am the granddaughter of a Polish Jew who lost all of his family in Warsaw, and for me to actually land in Warsaw with three planes of cargo—of humanitarian assistance—taken to the Ukrainians, that was very moving. You come into Ukraine and see these people in lines. It is just heartbreaking,” said Halperin.
She and Ambassador Eynat Shlein, head of MASHAV–Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, spoke last week during a briefing on Israeli humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. The briefing was organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and highlighted Israel’s role in assisting Ukrainians—both Jewish and non-Jewish—during the last month of the crisis.
Schlein describes Israel’s operation there, including the sending to Ukraine of three planes of cargo loaded with humanitarian assistance. The cargo included 15,000 blankets, thousands of cots, tents and sleeping bags, along with 10 massive water purifiers for 200,000 people and a water-storage system in case of a disruption in the water supply. Also included were 17 tons of medicine and medical equipment and six generators, each weighing 5.5 tons.
Schlein said the Israeli embassies around Ukraine and in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia Romania and Moldova were provided with significant supplementary budgets in order to buy and distribute equipment for refugees.
Moshav has also provided online assistance and webinars, with more than 1,000 Ukrainians in the mental-health field participating in workshops to guide them through the process of dealing with war-induced trauma. There has also been special training for midwives, as many of the refugees are pregnant, said Schlein, who added this is the biggest humanitarian effort by MASHAV and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in her three decades of diplomatic service.
“We also initiated the establishment of a field hospital, which started functioning inside Ukraine. It’s about 10 miles east of the Ukraine-Poland border, and together with our colleagues in the Ministry of Health, Sheba Hospital, Clalit hospitals and the Joint (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), we have established this hospital. We’re getting close to 300 people already in the last couple of days, including surgery, maternity ward and so on. There are 60 doctors and paramedics and nurses over there and the team of our embassy in Kyiv, which is based now on the border between Ukraine and Poland, are the contact people for this operation,” said Schlein, adding that lines have started forming at the hospital at 6 a.m.
“We spent MASHAV’s annual budget in the first two weeks of March. In the next couple of weeks, we’re going to send six more planes with medicine and medical equipment, and probably also some food, including for Moldova, which absorbed probably a quarter of its population in refugees, and Moldova’s means are limited. We’re trying to be creative Innovative and quick on our feet,” she said.
‘Going back to the stories of our grandparents’
While the United States announced its plan on Friday to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, Israel had already accepted some 16,800 individuals, with the number climbing. While there have been allegations that Israel has opened its doors only or almost exclusively to Jews, Halperin said that claim is way off-base. In fact, the numbers tell a much different story.
As March 22, he reported, “we’ve had over 15,243 Ukrainians arrive in Israel (the numbers climbed to 16,858 by March 23). And out of that, less than 4,400 have citizenship eligibility or access under Israel’s Law of Return, provided to Jews and descendants as described in the law. That means over 10,000 have no grounds for aliyah [legal immigration to Israel]. They are not Jews. They are not family members of Jews who were eligible. And yet, they were welcomed,” said Halperin.
She said that counter to some reports, fewer than 300 Ukrainians who applied for refugee status have been refused entry, around 2% of applicants. That includes people who have a history of illegal stays in Israelis, such as entering as tourists but staying past their visas’ allowance and working illegally. Halperin also said some were refused entry due to suspicions that they were being trafficked and were vulnerable to abuse once entering Israel.
“I don’t think even the United States has a lower percent of rejections, and Israel, like any country, is trying to be on one hand welcoming and very, very flexible in accepting and opening its arms, but also not allowing for that to be taken advantage by the less than positive forces in society,” said Halperin.
But the story is about much more than numbers, according to Schlein and Halperin.
“It’s going back to the stories of our grandparents. And as a diplomat, this is not something that I’ve done before,” said Schlein, recounting an encounter she recently experienced.
“I met this woman who came with her mother and two of her children. She’s from central Ukraine in a major city of Jewish life, and she is Jewish. And she said that she escorted her mother to the border with two of the children so the mother will take the two children to Israel. However, she herself was going to go back to Zhytomyr, where her husband is in a bomb shelter with two more kids. Think of the dilemma. Who do you send with your mother to go to Israel, and who do you leave with the father?” said Schlein.
While Israeli diplomats continue to find solutions to impossible problems, that question is one that even they may not be able to answer.
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