Once Victims in Southeast Europe, Jews Come to Aid Fleeing Ukrainians

CHISINAU, Moldova – At a synagogue in central Chisinau on Monday, an Israeli social worker, Omer Hod, had a flash of historical vertigo. Ms. Hod’s ancestors had lived in Chisinau more than a century ago, surviving a devastating pogrom in 1903 before emigrating to what became Israel. Now their descendant had returned to the Moldovan capital – this time not as a victim, but as a rescuer.

“It’s like closure for me,” said Ms. Hod, a 26-year-old from Jerusalem who had come to Chisinau to help with the evacuation to Israel of thousands of Jewish refugees from Ukraine.

“Back then, it was almost a shame to be Jewish,” Ms. Hod said. “Now, people want to show they are Jewish so that they can be evacuated.”

Today, as in the early 1900s, Jews are once again escaping violence in southeastern Europe. But the context is radically different – cathartically so for the many Israelis who have come here to join the relief effort.

A century ago, Jews fled widespread antisemitic attacks in cities like Chisinau and Odessa – pogroms that helped spur early Zionists to emigrate independently to Palestine. Today, violence is not antisemitic. And this time around, representatives of the Jewish state, as well as an unusually high number of independent Israeli aid organizations, are now waiting at Ukraine’s borders to shepherd Ukrainian Jews to Israel.

The pogrom in Chisinau, also known as Kishinev, “was a very central event that drove modern Zionism,” the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said in a phone interview on Monday. “In the same Kishinev, right now, we’re saving Jews,” Mr. Bennett added. “The raison d’être of Israel is to be a safe haven for every Jew in danger. We did not have it in 1903. We have it now. ”

The Israeli government expects 20,000 Ukrainian Jews to emigrate to Israel, 10 percent of the estimated Jewish population in Ukraine, and says it is also seeing a rise in applications from Russian Jews. More than 2,000 Ukrainians have already been flown to Israel since the start of the war, nearly 500 of whom have at least one Jewish grandparent.

Teams from the Jewish Agency, a nonprofit organization that operates in coordination with the Israeli government and assists Jews interested in immigrating to Israel, are waiting in several European countries to organize their emigration. Israeli aid and emergency groups like United Hatzalah of Israel and IsraAID are at the border crossings to provide medical and psychological support, to both Jews and non-Jews, and often to provide temporary accommodation. Israeli airliners are waiting in regional airports to fly new immigrants to Tel Aviv.

At the diplomatic level, Mr. Bennett has played a central role in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. While he has been criticized for not taking a stronger stance against the Russian invasion, Mr. Bennett’s neutral position has allowed him to assume a mediation role that analysts consider to be unprecedented for an Israeli leader during a war between other countries.

This combined Israeli aid and diplomatic effort has moved many Israelis, especially those on the ground in Europe.

“It feels like it’s some kind of repair,” said Jill Shames, another Israeli social worker at the synagogue whose ancestors also escaped nearby pogroms in the late 1800s.

Like Ms. Hod, Ms. Shames was providing psychological support to refugees, on behalf of United Hatzalah. “We’re doing now what we could not do then,” said Ms. Shames.

The Agudath Israel synagogue is one of several hubs in the city serving as a staging post for Ukrainian Jews on their way to Israel. On Monday, the building was a crowded carousel of people coming and going, some just arriving from the border, others piling into buses that would take them to an airport in eastern Romania. Some families were sleeping in the synagogue itself, a few yards from its Torah scrolls.

Most were too exhausted to think about any grand historical parallels.

“Nothing particularly strikes me right now – I’ve had such a hard week and a half,” said Israel Barak, a 71-year-old Israeli who had just arrived from a village near Kyiv, where he had lived with his Ukrainian wife for four years. The couple had managed to bring their cat, Belka, but not their dog – a thought that drove Mr. Barak to tears.

Several had only a distant connection to Judaism. Mr. Barak’s wife, Tatiana Khochlova, 66, is a non-Jew who does not speak Hebrew; the pair met on a dating website, and communicate through an online translation application.

“I never thought I’d do anything like this!” Ms. Khochlova said in Russian, via a translator.

Nearby, a young woman from Kyiv said she and her mother were more likely to head to Europe than Israel.

“Israel is quite far, and we have a dog,” said Daria Ishchenko, 23, nodding at her beagle, Barcelona. “I’m not ashamed to say I’m Jewish or that I’m Ukrainian,” she said. But “we’re not that religious.”

Hurrying to and fro, the chief rabbi of Moldova, Pinhas Zaltzman, complained about a shortfall in funding from international donors, including the Israeli government; Rabbi Zaltzman had plowed his own savings into the relief effort, and was now down to his last $ 1,700, he said.

At least half the people the rabbi was sending by bus to Romania had no documents that could prove their Jewish roots, he said.

“We’re making every effort to help every human,” Rabbi Zaltzman said. “We’re not checking.”

For some Jews in Israel, this fact has prompted unease – both because of fears that it could dilute Israel’s Jewish character, and because it is a laissez-faire approach that some feel has not been granted to would-be immigrants from other Jewish backgrounds, including Ethiopian-born Jews.

Pnina Tamano-Shata, an Ethiopian-born minister in the Israeli cabinet, accused colleagues of double standards in a television interview last week, calling discrimination against Ethiopian Jews “disheartening.”

Others argued that Israel should, in fact, do even more to welcome non-Jewish Ukrainians. And many also warned that for all the fanfare with which the Israeli state was now welcoming Ukrainian Jews, it had not made life easy for earlier waves of Ukrainian and other Russian-speaking Jews who arrived in the 1990s.

About a million Russian-speaking Jews emigrated to Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of whom qualified for Israeli citizenship through their Jewish ancestry but are not considered Jewish by Israel’s religious establishment because they do not have a Jewish mother or had not converted to Orthodox Judaism. That makes it harder for them to marry or receive a religious burial.

For the new wave of Ukrainian immigrants, “this will pose a long-term problem,” said Ksenia Svetlova, a Russian-born Israeli commentator and former lawmaker. “They will run into the iron wall of the rabbinate,” or religious establishment. “The question of their status will surface when they want to get married here or, god forbid, die here,” Ms. Svetlova added.

To Palestinians, the prospect of a new wave of Jewish immigrants raises the possibility that some will settle in the occupied West Bank, making it even harder to establish a Palestinian state on that territory. Thousands of Russian speakers from earlier waves of immigration now live in the West Bank, including the current finance minister.

Israel is welcoming Ukrainians “at the expense of the Palestinians and their land,” said Nehad Abu Ghosh, a Palestinian political analyst and independent member of the Palestinian National Council.

But in the synagogue in Chisinau, what mattered most was that thousands of refugees were finally safe.

“I feel like history has been turned on its head,” said Ms. Shames, the social worker with roots in southeast Europe.

As if to illustrate her point, Ms. Shames was approached by a passing Moldovan woman.

“From Israel?” the woman asked Ms. Shames.

Then the woman smiled, and unbuttoned her jacket to reveal her necklace.

It was a Star of David.

Reporting was contributed by Myra Noveck in Jerusalem, Gabby Sobelman in Rehovot, Israel, and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa, Israel.

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