Ukrainian Jewish immigrants arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, Feb. 20, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90) (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Ukrainian olim

“When the plane took off, there was applause.”

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

Seventy five Jewish immigrants from Ukraine arrived in Israel on Sunday. They are the largest group of immigrants to arrive from Ukraine since Russia massed troops along the border.

The flight was sponsored by the Jewish Agency and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Gidi Schmerling, the Fellowship’s director of media and communications said the group was scheduled to immigrate even before the Ukraine-Russia crisis broke out. But the war drums clearly added to the stress and uncertainty of the departing Jews.

“When the plane took off, there was applause” Schmerling, who was on board, told Army Radio.

The olim were greeted at Ben Gurion International Airport by Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, the Jewish Agency’s acting chairman Ya’akov Hagoel, Fellowship President Yael Eckstein and other dignitaries.

New arrival Anzor Churpin told the Jerusalem Post, “We have waited so long and hoped that it would be better in Ukraine, but it only gets worse and scarier.” The 45-year-old arrived with his wife and two children from Kharkiv.

“Since 2014, people have been living in instability; they are not sure about the future. Today, only the blind will not notice that we are on the verge of war. Unrest, of course, is present,” Churpin said.

According to the Jewish Agency, before Sunday’s flights, 200 Ukrainian olim have have already arrived in Israel since the beginning of the year. Another 400 olim are expected to arrive by the end of February.

Israeli government officials have urged Israeli nationals and Jews to leave Ukraine while they can, but the pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The Israeli embassy expanded the hours of its consular service but few have shown up, while regular flights from Ukraine to Israel have been nearly empty.

Israeli government officials have been quietly laying the groundwork for the possible evacuation of Ukrainian Jews as fears of a Russian invasion rise.

Officials assess that around 200,000 Ukrainians qualify for Israeli citizenship through the Law of Return. The largest concentrations of Jews are in and around the cities of Kyiv, Odessa, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk. It’s not known how many would choose to leave for Israel or move elsewhere.

Nor is it clear if an evacuation would even be possible in a war situation.

Of special concern is the fate of an estimated 3,000 Jews living in eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian Donetsk region. The Donetsk People’s Republic declared its independence in 2014 in a move recognized by Russia but nobody else.

According to Haaretz, Israel had contingency plans in the late 1980s for an emergency airlift of large numbers of Jews from the Soviet Union. Those plans are being dusted off and updated now.

Israel’s last major airlift was Operation Solomon, a covert operation in which 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were evacuated in 36 hours amid a civil war.