Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel’s Ukrainian Refugee Quota: An Equitable Proposal

Despite the medical aid (doctors) and humanitarian aid (clothing etc.) that Israel has sent to the Ukraine, it has sadly been caught up in a domestic brouhaha regarding the number of war refugees to allow into the country. While this issue is complex, especially for Israel, there is a reasonable solution – but it entails international coordination.

Why is this issue “especially” complicated for Israel? Three reasons.

First, because the Law of Return enables any Jewish refugees from the Ukraine to automatically enter the country and obtain citizenship, if they wish (the only condition: an affidavit that they intend to stay in order to receive certain economic benefits). Thus far, approximately 15,000 have done so in the past two weeks, leaving a “mere” 5,000 slots for Ukrainian non-Jewish refugees given Minster of Interior Ayelet Shaked’s recently stated policy to enable only 20,000 Ukrainian refugees to enter the country.

Second, over the past several years the country with largest number of “tourists” in Israel who have not left after their visa expired is the Ukraine! The Ministry of the Interior’s registry has 12,000 Ukrainian names who are still in the country, illegally. Thus, it understandable that this Ministry (at least) is wary about what will happen when the war is over – as many of the new refugee “incomers” could do likewise.

Third, Israel already is suffering from a severe housing shortage that has caused real estate prices to skyrocket: around 10% in the last year alone! A large influx of families would not only compound this problem; just finding them adequate housing would be a very difficult task. Right now, many refugees have been stuck in Ben-Gurion Airport’s incoming terminal; this morning Defense Minister Gantz has opened several (“Corona”) hotels for these non-Jews until their status can be determined.

Yet, Israelis have always seen themselves as a caring people, especially with memories of World War 2 when few countries were willing to let them in (e.g., the eternal sojourn of the “St. Louis”). Indeed, not many recall what was the very first act of newly elected PM Menachem Begin when he came into power back in 1977 after three decades in the political wilderness: enabling dozens of Vietnamese “boat people” evacuees to settle in Israel (eventually 360 came to Israel). He specifically mentioned the St. Louis: “We never have forgotten the boat with 900 Jews, the St. Louis, having left Germany in the last weeks before the Second World War… traveling from harbor to harbor, from country to country, crying out for refuge. They were refused… Therefore it was natural… to give those people a haven in the Land of Israel” ( Ironically, today it is the Labor Party’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Dr. Nachman Shai, who is calling for unlimited refugee intake, among others on Israel’s Left.

Outside Israel, the countries bordering the Ukraine are being inundated with millions of refugees escaping the Russian attacks. The smaller countries among them (e.g., Moldova) obviously cannot handle such numbers – as relatively small Israel can’t either. What to do?

Given that all Western countries – near the Ukraine and further away – are united in their stand against Russian aggression, it shouldn’t be hard for all of them to establish an international conference for all countries wishing to help, and then together setting a quota for each country. The quota formula could be straightforward: the same (low) percentage of each nation’s population. If set at 0.25% (a mere quarter of one percent, but it could be lower or higher – or adjusted in either direction as the ongoing situation warrants), then for example Israel would be obligated to take in 22,000 refugees; Poland with a population of nearly 38 million, would care for 70,000; Germany 220,000; the U.S. around 800,000. With enough countries (even if only the European Union, and several “Anglo” nations) these numbers would relatively easily add up to the required number of refugees – even if it hits the maximally projected five million mark. The U.N. Refugee Agency could be the coordinator of refugee population transfers to ensure that each country’s quota is met, but not more than the allotted numbers.

If these numbers, especially for the larger population countries, look daunting, one has to realize that as some point when the war is over (assuming Russian retreat from at least most of the Ukraine under the punishing economic sanctions), most of these refugees will return to their homeland. Indeed, the irony is that because most of these refugees are children (with only their mothers; all 18-60-year old men have been drafted into the Ukrainian defense forces), Russian continued domination of the Ukraine would mean that the country it is “swallowing” has no demographic future i.e., the Russians would be burdened by a hollowed out country added to its own recent, precipitous demographic decline.

If all these countries felt that each was pulling the exact same relative weight in refugee absorption as all the others, it would be much more palatable for their citizens to bear the temporary burden – neutralizing any electoral/political damage that their democratically elected leaders might be otherwise afraid of.

Morality and efficiency don’t usually mix well. In this case, however, a commonly agreed upon refugee quota would be the most effective way to morally ameliorate a huge humanitarian crisis.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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