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A new year and the challenges ahead

The aid Israel provided to Ukrainian Jews (and non-Jews) changed the way the country perceives its role with regard to Diaspora Jewry - and for the better
Illustrative: Ukrainians who fled the fighting in Ukraine land at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv on March 17, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ukrainians who fled the fighting in Ukraine land at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv on March 17, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The dust is far from settled on the war between Ukraine and Russia, and it is too early to draw conclusions about victory and defeat. It is clear, however, what both countries have lost: the loss of lives and damage to property is enormous and, even as I write these words, an end to this war is not in sight.

Here in Israel, the focus was on the new immigrants from Ukraine whose status was defined and regulated. Yet we cannot forget the non-Jewish citizens of Ukraine who sought refuge here and for whom I had to conduct a public struggle to allow their entrance into Israel during the war. Israel’s Supreme Court supported my campaign and proudly took the moral and human position.

My central focus this past months was the Ukrainian Jewish community. A vibrant community existed in Ukraine up until the outbreak of the war, and which has now been torn apart. This community has been the focus of the Ministry of Diaspora Affair’s activity in recent months, and it shines a light on a new, developing type of relationship between Israel and world Jewry.

In the weeks leading up to the war and after it broke out, my ministry immediately sent support to the various communities. Not only support statements, but actions and deeds. I allocated about $3 million from my office’s budget to help with the urgent needs of the community: food, medicine, shelter, security, and any matter in which help was needed. 

This was the first time, to the best of my knowledge, that Israel has done such a thing — used Israeli taxpayers’ funds to support a Jewish community in need. It sets a precedent for the future as well. If we cannot send our own people to help and save them on the ground, for whatever reasons, there is another way: extending financial aid, mental and moral support, which is not only helpful, but essential in times of emergencies.

For many weeks and even recently, I conducted long conversations with community leaders and rabbis of Chabad Lubavitch across the various cities in Ukraine. During these discussions, I learned about the community’s changing needs and sought solutions. In those conversations, the message conveyed was that we are standing with you, now and forever. 

At the early stage of the war, I decided to travel the border area between of Poland and Ukraine, where I watched the immense streams of refugees and the efforts that European countries invested in absorbing them. Later in another visit, to Berlin, I participated in the opening ceremony of the new school year, in Harkin and Berlin, with Jewish refugee children from Ukraine. This was the follow up of the rescue operation. Chabad has emerged as the backbone of the Ukrainian Jewish community, providing refugees with a sense of routine and normality in daily life — something so essential under circumstances such as these. Our work with them continues on a constant basis.

The JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) also continued its mission during this period. JDC has hundreds of local employees whose mission is providing services to the elderly population and other members of the community.

On Independence Day, it is customary to light 12 beacons in Israel’s state ceremony, one of which is designated to the Jewish Diaspora. This year, we decided to choose a representative from the team of JDC in Ukraine. 

Elizabetha Sherstock came to the ceremony and greeted the crowd with great pride in the Ukrainian language. Elizabetha has a daughter and granddaughter here in Israel, and when I asked her if it is not time to join them, she said “No, I have a mission in my city (Sumi, Ukraine) and cannot abandon the 2,000 Holocaust survivors I care for.”

Jewish solidarity at his best.

Our activities in Ukraine became a precedent this summer, when we began to focus on the Jewish refugees scattered in Europe. The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs operated summer camps in a number of European countries for about 2,000 refugees and their children. This is only the first stage of a vast, overarching operation, to reach the Jewish refugees in Europe and respond to their new needs. Although the host countries support them with a generous hand, it is still the obligation of the State of Israel to give them the tools for a full Jewish life and to preserve and cultivate connection to the State of Israel. 

All these decisions and steps highlight a new paradigm established by Israel in relation to the Diaspora — a policy that I upheld on its behalf, and which is reflected in the 2018 nation-state law. This law obliges Israel to “guarantee the safety of the members of the Jewish people subject to hardship and captivity.” 

We are entering a new chapter of Israel-Diaspora relations. Israel is making use of its great human resources (dozens of Israeli organizations were active in Ukraine) and its material resources (financial aid, a field hospital) to help Jewish communities in need.

In the new equation of “give and take,” Israel is no longer only the receiving party, but also the giving party — which assists and is formally committed to Jewish life and the well-being of Jews in the entire world.

The Jewish people, who have survived thousands of years of history, continue to exist in their Diaspora communities around the globe. This will be the case forever, as it has been for thousands of years, but gradually the State of Israel is strengthening and becoming the center of Jewish life for the entire Jewish people. This process, that responsibility, obliges Israel us to adopt new strategic visions and mode of action. 

The Jewish world constantly, from one generation to another, faces new challenges — and we have already successfully proved yet we will overcome them, together, always together.

Happy New Year. Shana Tova.

About the Author
Dr. Nachman Shai is Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs.
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