Ukraine has blocked more than 200 Ukrainian children from going to Israel this week to start their school year there under a Jewish Agency program promoting immigration to the Jewish state.
The government’s roadblock against the children’s exit, say Israeli and Jewish communal officials, is but the latest in an escalating spiral of hostility between Ukraine and the Jewish Agency, an Israeli government-linked body responsible for bringing and resettling Jews in the Jewish state.
According to sources in Israel, earlier episodes include the expulsion of the agency’s representative in Kharkov about six months ago. Other age
“Right now, everything is frozen,” said Shlomo Asraf, who oversees programs in the Ukraine city of Kharkhov for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Organizations. “The children are not coming. And [Ukrainian President Leonid] Kuchma wants to get a lot of money to give them permission.”
But sources say the problem is complex, touching on Ukrainian concerns about losing highly skilled citizens to Israel, and does not necessarily reflect an anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist turn by the government.
The hostility between the government and the Jewish Agency has grown sufficiently serious that American Jewish leaders brought up the issue with President Clinton at a White House meeting last month. According to several participants, Clinton promised them he would personally intervene with President Kuchma. He asked the Jewish leaders to refrain from public statements in the meantime.
Clinton cautioned the Jewish leaders that Kuchma, who faces a fierce re-election battle against a strong Communist opposition in October, is in a delicate position now that narrows his freedom of action.
“He’s not in a perfect place,” one participant quoted Clinton as saying. But Clinton stressed that in terms of Western interests and values, Kuchma was the best of any conceivable politician now on the scene to lead that nation.
Efforts to obtain comment from the Jewish Agency were unsuccessful.
In New York, Ukraine’s consul general, Bohdan Yaremnko, said he was unfamiliar with any problems between his government and the Jewish Agency. He stressed that Ukraine’s emigration law permits free emigration with few restrictions. “There is no legal basis which could restrict [the children’s] travel from Ukraine,” he said.
Ukraine, with a population of about 50 million, has an estimated 500,000 Jews. About 300,000 Ukrainians have emigrated to Israel. But this emigration wave has recently receded, say experts, in part due to the clamp down on the Jewish Agency.
Despite the current problem with the Jewish Agency, state-to-state relations with Israel remain good. The immediate conflict appears to stem at least partly from the nature of the Jewish Agency’s mission in the Ukraine.
That mission — to promote emigration to Israel, or aliya, among those with Jewish family backgrounds — is viewed as having serious consequences for the economically struggling country. And in some cases, Israeli sources say, the way in which the agency has pursued its mandate has exacerbated the resulting tension.
In one case, said a source who spoke only on condition of anonymity, “The Ukranians found a Jewish Agency emissary looking for potential olim [emigrants] on a sensitive military installation.” This sparked fears of security leaks via emigrants, he said.
More broadly, say Jewish officials close to the situation, the agency’s efforts to promote emigration have set off concerns in some quarters of a serious “brain drain,” particularly since a number of Ukrainian Jews are members of the country’s scientific and technological elite. The tension this is now generating is compounded by the fact that the majority of those heeding the Jewish Agency’s call are not Jews as defined by traditional Jewish religious law. Often, say those involved in the aliya effort, they do not even have one parent with a Jewish identity.
This is possible because while traditional Judaism defines a Jew as someone with a Jewish mother, Israel’s citizenship law, known as the Law of Return, grants automatic citizenship to anyone with just one Jewish grandparent.
The Jewish Agency’s mission is to promote aliya by anyone eligible to enter Israel under this law. But those close to the situation report this promotes a feeling among some Ukrainians that the agency is simply recruiting talented individuals with little or no Jewish connection to escape Ukraine’s difficult economic conditions.
In the school program for the 200 children now barred from leaving Ukraine, for example, about 70 percent of the participating students are not halachically Jewish, according to Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, director of conversions for Israel’s chief rabbinate.
“It is true that these are kids with high technical and scientific potential,” he said of the ninth-graders the program targets. The program is designed as an entry program for those considering moving to Israel.
Rabbi Ostroff noted that if and when these children decide to make aliya permanently, many of their families follow them to Israel.
“I don’t see an easy solution, because from the Ukrainian viewpoint, they are actually losing an important resource,” he said. “It’s not something to take lightly.”
Adding to the problem, said Rabbi Ostroff, many of these parents leave their own aging parents behind “to fall on the local social welfare system, which has collapsed.”
This has left Kuchma’s government open to charges that its earlier tolerance of the Jewish Agency’s activities has damaged the country. The charges, say Jewish leaders, come both from opposition forces genuinely alarmed about brain drain, and from others exploiting veins of anti-Semitism that still run through the country.