Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday urged all Israeli citizens to leave Ukraine amid fears of an imminent invasion by Russia.
“It was agreed to raise the travel warning for the area, along with calling on Israeli citizens to immediately leave,” Bennett’s spokesperson said.
However, most Israelis living in the country, thought to number around 10,000 to 15,000 people, including Israeli Ukrainians, and Ukrainian Jews for that matter, are in no hurry to leave, with few believing that a Russian invasion is imminent.
The website "worldpopulationreview.com" estimates that Ukraine currently has a core Jewish population of about 48,000 people and an “enlarged Jewish population” (including individuals with partial Jewish heritage) numbering around 140,000.
Also on Sunday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met Ukrainian First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova in Jerusalem, where the two discussed the escalating situation in Ukraine and how it could affect Israel. Dzhaparova warned that reductions in grain exports could cut Israel’s bread supply in half.
Lior Haiat, the spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, said that the Israeli government has been following the situation in Ukraine closely.
“We have information coming from our diplomats both in Kyiv and in other countries,” he added. “We have reached a point when we think it is safer for Israeli citizens to leave Ukraine as quickly as possible because there are still direct flights from Ukraine to Israel and we don’t know if those flights will continue.”
Haiat noted the family members of Israel diplomats stationed in Ukraine arrived home on Sunday.
However, he clarified, “The entire team of Israeli diplomats in Kyiv is still working, the embassy is open, and we even sent other diplomats to help Israeli citizens who will need urgent Israeli consular help.”
He emphasized that Israel is prepared to help not only Israelis but also members of the Jewish community. “We will help every Jew who wants or needs to immigrate to Israel; this is the reason that Israel exists,” Haiat said.
Daniel Aharon is the founder and CEO of Ach Gadol [“Big Brother”] for Lone Soldiers, an organization that supports active duty IDF soldiers who do not have immediate family in Israel who can help them. He said there are around 7,000 lone soldiers in the IDF, around half of them Israelis who do not have ties with their parents, and half expats from all around the world.
Among the expats, “I would say a third are Russian speakers,” Aharon explained. “Russian-speaker soldiers are the biggest segment of lone soldiers in the IDF.”
Ach Gadol currently provides support to 125 Ukrainian-Israeli lone soldiers, he said.
Over the past two days, he reached out to all the lone soldiers who came from Ukraine, offering his organization’s help in case they wish to bring their families to Israel in light of the situation.
Only one soldier responded to the offer, and he wants his family to immigrate to Israel for personal reasons, not because of a possible Russian invasion, Aharon reported.
Haiat said the Foreign Ministry has seen similar reactions. “For the time being we haven’t heard of an increase in requests for immigration to Israel among Ukrainian Jews,” he said.
Aharon believes that from the Ukrainians’ perspective, there is no reason to rush for the exit. “The situation in Ukraine now doesn’t seem that critical to the Ukrainians that they will get up and run away,” he said.
“What we are hearing from the United States, that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is going to invade this week, that’s not the way things look to the Ukrainians.”
Aharon said there is not the same “hysteria” among Ukrainians as we see coming from Western countries. “Much of this hysteria coming from the West is probably being deliberately generated to serve geopolitical interests against Russia,” he added.
That is why, Aharon said, “You won’t find many cases of lone soldiers or [IDF] volunteers who are rushing to bring their families to Israel.”
David, a Ukrainian Jew who immigrated to Israel some two decades ago but still has family in Ukraine, agrees. “I personally don’t feel that something unusual is about to happen,” he said.
Rather this is an “internet war,” where everyone is trying to report and predict what will happen next, Veretekha said.
Kateryna Popova, also a Ukrainian Jew from the south of the country, said opinions among Ukrainians are rather divided. “While some people, especially those who were affected by the previous situation in the [country’s] east, are really worried; others think it is a political manipulation and an empty threat,” she explained.
Two self-proclaimed people’s republics in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Donetsk and Lugansk, have declared independence, with Russian support.
Popova also thinks it is too early to consider leaving Ukraine, especially since for many Ukrainian Jews it would be very challenging to immigrate to Israel because of the language barrier, and of course the financial factor and the higher cost of living.
“Jews in Ukraine are still waiting, and if the situation does escalate they will have no choice,” she explained.
Still, considering the unpredictability of the situation, many Ukrainians are ready to “pack up and go” if needed, Popova acknowledged.
Haiat said the Israeli government is in close contact with the Jewish community in Ukraine. “They know that in the given case, Israel will help them in any way that it can,” he said.
The story is written by Debbie Mohnblatt and reprinted with permission from The Media Line