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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine's Needy Jews Pour Into Israel

ODESSA, Ukraine -- Pensioners in the bankrupt former Soviet republic of Ukraine have to live on $20 a month. But if they were to emigrate to Israel, each would become a "new repatriant" entitled to $200 a month.


This simple piece of arithmetic has kept a steady flow of Jews -- and a number of opportunists -- heading for Israel from Ukraine since 1989, when perestroika-era Soviet authorities opened the door to mass Jewish emigration.


"This last wave of emigration is different from earlier emigrations because it's mainly economic in its motivation," said Yevgeny Golubovsky of the Worldwide Club of Odessa, a cultural group for the once-Jewish city's numerous emigr?s.


"They call it the sausage emigration," he added with a gentle laugh. "But I wouldn't judge people harshly for worrying more about sausage than their souls, when they aren't sure what the future here holds for themselves and their children."


More than half a million people have made the "ascent to Zion," many of them in the first two years. Israel, a tiny country of 4 million, welcomes them but has found the mainly poor, elderly and non-religious newcomers hard to absorb.


Russia has gone through its own economic crisis since the late 1980s, but many citizens are now learning to cope with capitalism. Some are even beginning to prosper.


As the Russian economy slowly improves, and as word filters back from the repatriants about hardships inside Israel, emigration from Russia has dropped off.


But neighboring Ukraine, bogged down in an ever-worsening economic crisis, is still in the grip of emigration fever.


"Practically the whole aliyah (ascent) is now taking place from Ukraine because things are so hard here economically," said Lyubov Bakhsh of Exodus, an Odessa company that organizes ships to take emigrants to the Israeli port of Haifa.


"There's really not any anti-Semitism in Ukraine any more," Bakhsh said. "Not enough to make people emigrate, anyway."


The overall number of ex-Soviet emigrants to Israel has settled down to a steady 60,000 a year, according to Yuliya Bentsiyanova, a consultant at one of the organizations that helps smooth the passage of would-be repatriants.


"Since 1989, there've been huge changes here, for better and for worse. The kind of people who come to us now are those who can't find themselves in the new post-Soviet world. Many of them are scared to go on living here," Bentsiyanova said.


Many Israelis are unimpressed by the strictly pragmatic concerns of the ex-Soviet arrivals, comparing them unfavorably with the educated, idealistic settlers of previous immigrations.


"For our ancestors, for centuries, it's been the Holy Land to which they longed to return," said Israeli David Makhlyarevsky, an aide to the rabbi of Odessa.


"When a man takes the step of moving to Israel, he must understand all that yearning and not just go for the base economic reason that things are worse here and better there. It seems to me that that's an unworthy reason to go."


Both countries have worked to keep the relationship warm.


In June, the Ukrainian authorities smoothed over a row with the Jewish Agency for Israel, which promotes emigration, after accusing it of enticing too many young Jews to leave and threatening to close its offices.


Relations between Ukraine and Israel were upset by a death sentence imposed by an Israeli court on Ukraine-born John Demjanjuk, accused of being a Nazi death-camp guard. His eventual release and return to the United States last year improved ties greatly.


Centuries of persecution -- from the pogroms of tsarist days to Soviet purges -- have dispersed the former superpower's Jews, leaving them few documents to prove their ancestry.


Ex-Soviet passports specified five points: name, address, date and place of birth and, the "fifth point," nationality. Jews were classed as a separate nationality.


Because this exposed Jews to unfavorable treatment, many changed their names through mixed marriages or by falsifying their documents. Jews would often describe their nationality elliptically by saying: "I'm a fifth-point person."


The fears and subterfuge of those years have made it hard for many people of Jewish descent to trace their lineage now that it has become acceptable, and even desirable, to do so. Without such proof, Israel will not grant applicants repatriant status.


But Israel does have a very liberal Law on Return to make things easier for would-be immigrants. Under it, the family of anyone with a Jewish grandparent has the right to settle.


Israeli officials say, however, that their generosity has been abused by some ex-Soviet applicants for repatriant status.


In an already confused situation, non-Jews eager for a slice of the wealth they believe can be had in Israel have bribed bureaucrats to make them up fake documents "proving" they have Jewish relatives and therefore a right to "repatriate."


The entry of "fake" Jews into Israel has led to protests from religious parties inside Israel.


"Such things happen, and no-one can be happy about these immigration attempts with false papers," Yair Tsaban, Israel's Absorption Minister, said on a recent trip to Kiev.


Others, according to Bentsiyanova, simply fail to realize that they have to be Jewish to become repatriants to Israel.


"I had one pure Russian family in here recently, asking about emigration to Israel. When I told them they didn't have the right to be new repatriants, they were astonished. And angry. They went off saying: 'But why do we have to be Jewish?'"