Its driven by fear: Ukrainians and Russians with Jewish roots flee to Israel – The Guardian

Posted By on October 17, 2022

A visit to Jerusalems only boxing club is like stepping into the past: the former bomb shelter in a working-class neighbourhood of Jerusalem is a riot of old-school paraphernalia, and a CD of 1970s disco provides the soundtrack for training sessions.

This is the kingdom of Gershon Luxemburg, better known as Grisha, a fit 78-year-old who barks instructions while chewing menthol gum. Born in Uzbekistan, the former Russian champion came to Israel as a young man; today he trains many new Russian-speaking migrs.

I learned to box as a child so I could fight back when I was beaten up at school for being Jewish, Luxemburg said. I fought in Lebanon and the Yom Kippur war. Jews are not afraid to fight, to defend themselves. But no one wants to die because of Putins war in Ukraine.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Israel prepared for a new wave of immigration from the former Soviet state. About 13,000 Ukrainians with Jewish heritage have made aliyah, or emigrated, since then. Unexpectedly, double that have come from Russia, meaning around one in eight Russian Jews have left the country.

Since Vladimir Putins mobilisation announcement in September, their numbers are growing. Last week, Alla Pugacheva, the queen of Soviet pop, reiterated her criticism of the war and announced she had come to Israel with her husband, who has Jewish roots.

Mikhael, who has been coming to Grishas gym for the last two years, was born and raised in Moscow. Working in the tech industry in Israel, he now finds himself unable to visit his mother and sister, who still live in the Russian capital.

Theres no way I can go home now. I decided to make aliyah and I am happy here. I did my service in the Israeli army. But in Russia its not the same. I do not want to be part of that, the 33-year-old said.

Israels law of return much reviled by Palestinians, to whom it does not apply gives people born Jewish, converts, spouses of Jewish people and those with Jewish parents or grandparents the right to move to the country and acquire Israeli citizenship.

Since 1950, Israel has seen several waves of aliyah immigration from countries including Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen, as well as an influx of more than 1 million people after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

For Ukrainian-born Knesset member Yuli Edelstein, a prominent refusenik who spent three years in a Siberian penal colony, there is a sense that history is repeating itself.

Danger has been part of the Jewish experience in Russia for generations. No one will ever forget that, he said.

When I left Russia I was very young and knew very little about my Jewish roots and Israel. But I had a destination. This time, people are leaving in a rush its driven by fear.

The aliyah process has been expedited for Ukrainians, who are classed as refugees, but unexpected demand from Russia has overwhelmed the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental body that facilitates immigration. On top of the 26,000 Russians who have already arrived in Israel so far this year, another 35,000 are waiting for paperwork to be processed.

Israels aliyah and integration ministry, the foreign affairs ministry and the treasury met after Putins military call-up to discuss emergency budgets, lodging options and organising flights for new arrivals.

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The Jewish Agencys work, however, is under threat. In July, Russias justice ministry recommended that the organisation be shut down for violating Russian privacy laws, sparking a diplomatic spat.

Despite pressure from its western allies to take a forceful stance, Israel has tried to remain neutral in the war in Ukraine, as it relies on Moscow to facilitate its military operations in Syria. The threat of closing the Jewish Agencys offices, however, led Israels caretaker prime minister Yair Lapid to warn that such a move would be a severe blow to bilateral relations. A case is slowly working its way through a Moscow court, and the agencys future is uncertain.

Its not clear at all what the Russians are hoping to achieve by targeting the Jewish Agency. The government is not monolithic maybe one branch is seeking to slow the emigration and another is aware of the possible diplomatic implications, said a source connected to the issue who asked not to be named to avoid jeopardising the Jewish Agencys case.

Its hard to predict what will happen next, but there are two contradictory outcomes: either people will fear to put themselves forward as candidates for aliyah, now its been frowned upon by the government, or it will lead to an even bigger surge in numbers.

Putins mobilisation led to a scramble for flights to Israel, where Russian citizens are still welcome as tourists. Five new private agencies have also opened to help Russians make aliyah, and Agence France-Presse reported that municipal administration offices across the country have seen huge increases in people looking for records to back up their claims of Jewish heritage. Many of those contacting the authorities for help are mothers desperate to get their sons out of the country.

I got an Israeli passport many years ago because I always knew something like this was possible. I always knew the dark days of the Soviet Union could return, said Anna Klatis, a journalism professor at Moscow State University who left for Jerusalem with her 16-year-old daughter in February.

It is tough for my daughter to adjust to a new place and learn Hebrew for school. Maybe she will have to do military service here. But I could not let her grow up in a place where freedoms are vanishing.

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Its driven by fear: Ukrainians and Russians with Jewish roots flee to Israel - The Guardian

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