Israel’s last wave of Ukrainian and Russian Jews is preparing to absorb the next one
New people with old stories are sitting on the benches in Nahariya, the beach town in northern Israel where my parents live. One woman sits in a park near the Jewish Agency’s immigrant absorption center, holding her smartphone and crying as another woman’s voice says on the speaker from Ukraine, “There are fatalities in Kharkiv.” A crew from the TV news is there to interview these first arrivals, and for an Israeli watching, it seems like headlines and history at once. Kyiv, Lviv, Moscow, the Jewish Agency. Is it the 1990s, or the 1930s? Another woman, Tatyana, embraces two of her three children, fresh from the airport. Her eldest son stayed behind to fight near Dnipro. “It’s a miracle we made it here,” she says.
Israelis are as glued to the war in Ukraine as the rest of the Western world, so involved in the extraordinary course of events that most of us haven’t yet considered the most immediate way this is going to manifest itself here: in a new wave of aliyah, “ascent,” the word we like to use for immigration. On Sunday three planes landed with 300 people, and it’s only beginning. Some estimates say 10,000 are coming, some say 10 times that; some, like the Interior Minister, say it could be hundreds of thousands and won’t be limited to people from Ukraine.
The old Zionist absorption machinery—ignored by nearly all Israelis nearly all of the time, though it’s more or less the reason the country exists and the reason we’re all here—is creaking back into motion. Israel will try to work its narrative magic, issuing the newcomers a story of strength that obscures their weakness, telling them they’re not homeless but home and that they’re not refugees but olim, “those who ascend,” masters of their own fate. This story is one of the secrets of the country’s success. A version of it is shared by everyone else in this town: the original Germans, the Moroccans and Tunisians, the Romanians, the earlier Russians and Ukrainians, the Ethiopians. The rooms at the absorption center probably still smell of injera. That’s why, although Elena and Tatyana may never have been here before, they somehow don’t seem out of place.
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