by: Ilse Strauss, News Bureau Chief
As rumors of an imminent invasion swirled, Jerusalem implored Israelis in Ukraine to flee the looming war for the safety of Israel. The appeal extended beyond Israeli nationals. Jerusalem offered citizenship and a homecoming to the land of their promise for every Ukrainian Jew. Some heeded the call. Many didn’t.
When the Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine on February 24, an estimated 8,000 Israelis remained in the country. An additional 200,000-plus Ukrainian Jews also faced the invading army.
“We…will do everything to not leave any Israel or any Jew behind,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said days into the war. “This is why there is a Jewish state.”
And so, as the rockets fell and the death toll mounted, Israel launched the biggest rescue effort in the modern state’s history, setting out to salvage Israelis, Ukrainian Jews and a few others from besieged cities, towns and villages and bring them safely home to Israel.
Amid the bedlam of firefights and shelling, closed Ukrainian skies, lines of fleeing refugees and overflowing border crossings, Israel organized buses to pick up its people from collection points in battle-scarred cities and ferry them under armed guard through the border. This entailed Israeli representatives on the ground arranging rescue trips and working with Israeli officials stationed on the border crossings to receive passengers and arrange the next leg of their journey to Israel.
An Israeli journalist leaving Ukraine on one of these rescue trips described his gratitude as he watched other refugee families on foot dragging their suitcases across the border crossing—as the Israelis and Jews made the trip on an armed bus. “Only one country was arranging buses for free…and had its diplomats meet the buses to issue documents in the field,” he said. “It is an incredible service, and a testament to the values…of Israel’s people.”
Israelis weren’t the only ones who noticed. Marveling at the rescue trips and the Israeli consular support working day and night at the crossings to process their people, a Moroccan national who fled Ukraine with no help from his country told Israeli officials, “In war, no one can go there. And ambassadors of Israel go there and save their citizens…just your ambassadors go. Very, very good work.”
During World War II, six million Jews perished because they had nowhere to flee. Today, hundreds of thousands of Jews are caught in the crosshairs of Europe’s largest land battle in nearly eight decades. As the nation-state of the Jewish people, Israel will not let history repeat itself.
Under Israel’s Law of Return, anyone with one Jewish grandparent is eligible for Israeli citizenship. This right applies to some 200,000 Ukrainians. To them, it represents the promise of a number to call for assistance, a seat on an Israeli rescue bus, a helping hand amid the chaos of overcrowded border crossings, a homecoming after bidding farewell to everything they held dear and a new beginning in Israel.
Eighty years ago, being Jewish was a death sentence. In decades past, being Jewish was a lightning rod for anti-Semitism, prompting many to hide their identity. Now, amid war, heartbreak and loss, it’s a lifeline. “Every Jew knows we are waiting for him here, that the door to the State of Israel is always open,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.
After one month of war, nearly 10,000 Ukrainian Jews have walked through that open door. The number will likely rise dramatically. An estimated 100,000 refugees are expected to make Israel their home by the end of the year, making it the largest wave of immigration since the 1990s, when more than a million Jews flocked to the country after the Soviet Union collapsed.
While it mourns the circumstances, Israel rejoices in the homecoming, launching an initiative dubbed Operation Returning Home to rescue Ukrainian Jews from the ravages of war, see them safely to Israel and then help them rebuild their lives in their new homeland. “This is…a moment for which we have been destined,” Bennett vowed, “and for which the State of Israel was established.”
The initiative entails the Jewish Agency’s “Aliyah Express” program that significantly expedites the immigration process. It involves Israeli officials on border crossings issuing documents—sometimes hand-written in a makeshift office operating from the back of a van—to refugees who never considered aliyah (immigration to Israel) before the Russians came. And it means launching countless rescue operations to evacuate orphans, Holocaust survivors, the disabled, the wounded and the ill. As a rescue flight ferrying a woman with dementia, a double amputee and elderly survivors in need of medical treatment touched down at Ben Gurion Airport, the daughter of one of the survivors told the Times of Israel, “Only Israel comes and rescues people from all over the world.”
Much to the chagrin of anti-Israel advocates pushing the narrative of a Jewish state offering preferential treatment to Jews while depriving Arabs of their basic human rights, Israel rescued hundreds of Arabs—its own citizens and a few from countries that do not recognize the Jewish state and are technically at war with Jerusalem.
Up to 2,500 Arab Israeli students were in Ukraine when the Russians invaded. To expedite their evacuation, Jerusalem dispatched its deputy consul in Turkey, Yara Shibli, a Bedouin and a native Arab speaker, to the border. An Orthodox rabbi personally helped 100 Arab Israelis across the border. And as Arab Israeli parents tearfully welcomed their children disembarking from Israeli flights at Ben Gurion Airport, popular Arab media personality Eman Kassem Slimani lauded the Jewish state’s inclusive rescue efforts.
There’s more. Thanks to Israel, a student from Gaza found his way home to the coastal enclave and a number of Moroccans escaped safely. A Syrian sent Israel a thank-you note for his safe return, and a student from Lebanon was offered a seat on an Israeli rescue bus.
A spokesperson for Israel’s Foreign Ministry later confirmed: “There are Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian citizens on the Israeli bus…We’ll help anyone who we can help….”
The fate of Ukraine Jews is particularly close to Bridges for Peace’s heart. We’ve partnered with Israeli organizations working on the front lines to rescue refugees and provide desperately needed relief amid the suffering. Thanks to contributions from Christians around the world, we’ve donated over US $500,000 to humanitarian efforts during the first month of the war.
“Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” the Mishnah (first postbiblical written recording of Jewish oral tradition) teaches.
Stop. Think about that for a moment. Imagine the thousands of lives, dreams and generations to come because of Israel’s efforts—in partnership with international Christians. Imagine thousands of worlds saved.
Photo License: Ukranian immigrants load onto bus
Photo License: Tank
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