Vis-À-Vis Visas: Ukraine vs. Israel

Vis a Vis Visas Ukraine vs. Israel
Men waiting at Ben Gurion Airport to fly to Uman last Rosh Hashanah. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)


The war being waged between Ukraine and Israel is not a typical war.

There are no explosives or bombs, just ego and a drive for revenge. And not a day passes without casualties on both sides.

This war began on Feb. 9, 2011, at precisely 6 a.m. That was when a mutual agreement waiving the need for entry visas between the two countries took effect.

At the time, everyone thought this would be a boon for both nations. From that point on, ties would thrive; air traffic between the nations would double and treble and the economies of both countries would benefit from increased tourism. If until then, 140,000 Ukrainian tourists visited Israel a year, and 100,000 Israelis traveled to Ukraine, expectations were that within just one year, the number of Ukrainian tourists would rise to a quarter of a million, and the number of Israeli tourists to Ukraine would exceed 180,000 a year.

The airlines fired up their engines and rubbed their hands in delight. From 31 flights each week between the two countries, they were talking about more than 60 flights. The public relations companies representing the airlines launched massive media campaigns in both nations. Some imagined that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian immigrants living in Israel would travel more frequently to visit relatives in the Diaspora. The visa waiver program would save lots of money for those seeking to visit Israel or Israelis seeking to travel to kivrei tzaddikim or kivrei avos in Ukraine ($120 per visa).

“It will be a massive development, and it will likely also increase the flight destinations to Ukraine beyond Kiev, so that it will be possible to fly to Dnipro, Odessa, Kharkiv and Lvov,” travel experts in Israel were predicting, adding that they also expected to see hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian pilgrims coming to visit Israeli tourist sites.

“There are 50 to 60 million citizens in Ukraine, many of them with a connection to Israel. There’s huge potential,” added sources at El Al.

Hopes skyrocketed. The visa waiver agreement, the product of seven years of hard work, took everything into account — except one small thing. Ukraine, for all its importance, is still a Third World country compared to the West and the State of Israel. And with the annulment of the visas, a side door opened — widely, some will say — to tens of thousands of Ukrainians seeking to flee their land to find more lucrative jobs. The State of Israel is, for millions of Ukrainians, Gan Eden.

Indeed, from the day that the visas were waived, tens of thousands of Ukrainians began streaming to Israel. They registered as tourists, noting that they were coming to visit Christian sites and would return home in a week or two. But one month after the agreement was signed, it emerged that thousands of those who had come to Israel had simply disappeared, and never returned to the airport to board their flights home. Many later appeared at the Israeli immigration offices and filed for refugee status. It emerged that thousands of residents of Georgia and other Eastern European nations came to Ukraine and took advantage of the open door to get to Israel.

In Yerushalayim, fears arose that hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of Ukrainians would come. The Israeli Interior Ministry decided to clamp down on arrivals from Ukraine at the airport. Inspectors were deployed to question those coming from Ukraine. “What is the purpose of your visit? How much money do you have on you?” These inspectors got clear instructions: interrogate all arrivals from Ukraine.

The problem is that they weren’t trained to identify who was in need of questioning. This led to unpleasant situations, such as when Ukrainian parliament members, mayors, journalists and others were invited by the Israeli government and local authorities, and suddenly found themselves locked in interrogation rooms for hours. Some were placed on planes heading right back to where they came from.

The deportees quickly brought the Ukrainian media into the picture, and many in that industry are not considered very friendly to Israel. The media there began to describe the “persecution of Ukrainians” at the Israeli border.

According to Interior Ministry figures, Israel refused entry to 8,453 Ukrainian citizens in 2017, and 7,307 in 2018. Even Ukraine’s education minister, Liliya Hrynevych, endured humiliating questioning at Ben Gurion Airport, requiring the intervention of the Israeli interior minister’s office. According to Foreign Ministry sources, there were incidents when a flight to Ukraine was half full with Ukrainians who had been denied entry. But the Ukrainians remained quiet.

The Ukrainians say that the straw that broke the camel’s back was the treatment of the mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko, when he arrived for a mayor’s conference in Yerushalayim. Klitschko and his two deputies were separated and detained at Ben Gurion even though they were part of an official delegation. Klitschko, a former world heavyweight champion, and one of the leaders of the Maidan revolution, is a national hero in Ukraine and a well-known international figure.

The Immigration and Population Authority and the Interior Ministry said in a statement that “we work in close cooperation with the Foreign Ministry and are in direct contact with the Ukrainian representation in Israel. The job of the border inspectors in Israel is to conduct queries when the need arises, and if indeed there is a question regarding an intention of illegally settling here, entry is denied. In most cases, the passenger ultimately is allowed into Israel.”

Ukraine was quiet at first. It followed the developments and quietly conveyed its complaints to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. But senior officials at Ukrainian airports and airlines, and sometimes just border policemen stationed at border points in Ukraine, decided to pay the Israelis back tit for tat. Entire Israeli planes that landed in Kiev and other airports were sent back to Israel with all the passengers, on the same grounds: it was not clear why they had come, and they didn’t have enough money to stay in Ukraine; some were even accused of coming to find work in Kiev.

It was an ongoing battle. And the ones who fell through the cracks were the many chareidi Jews who came to Ukraine to visit the tziyun of Harav Nachman of Breslov in Uman. The Ukrainians didn’t accept that this was the purpose of their visit, and entire families were sent back to Israel — at their own expense, of course. Some Ukrainian airlines found additional ways to harass Israelis. They obligated the men to pay for shtreimel boxes and the women to pay to take sheitel boxes on board.

The biggest flashpoint is Boryspil Airport in Kiev. Israeli sources report that the ones leading the harassment are the heads of the airport, who issue directives that Israeli tourists be sent back on the basis of groundless claims.

In recent months, on nearly every flight, Israelis who travel to Ukraine for vacation or to Rav Nachman are detained. After hours with no food, they are put on a flight back to Israel. There are days when the Ukrainians ban the entry of a few Israelis on each flight, and sometimes dozens or even half a plane are sent back.

At first, groups of chareidim or young men who came to the city were denied entry for what Ukrainian border officials claimed was “undefined purpose of visit.” But the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said that if Israel continued to “threaten” the citizens of its country, it would consider restoring the visa policy between the two nations.

“When the border officials see an Israeli passport, they become aggressive and anti-Semitic,” a young Israeli who was sent back said this week.

A young woman sent back from Kiev said, “They took my fingerprints and photos and tried to extract information from me as if I were a spy.” Another Israeli woman angrily reported: “They assigned soldiers to guard us. One of them said to a woman who was thirsty that she should drink from the bathroom. They [kept us in freezing rooms overnight]; we slept shaking on the floor. They separated couples and families. Had I known that this was the treatment I would get, I wouldn’t have gone near there.”

A senior official at the Ukrainian border patrol said in response: “At least here we let the Israelis buy food and drink at the duty free. When Israel detains Ukrainians, they put them in a migrant jail.” The Ukrainians claim that this is not revenge for Israel’s treatment, but rather the implementation of a new border supervision program, which dictates that Israelis who cannot prove to the border official that they have enough money and vouchers for hotels, or who don’t clearly define the purpose of their visit, are sent back.

The Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, Hennadi Nadolenko, told Hamodia: “There is a new policy, and they don’t allow entry to anyone who doesn’t have money or vouchers. … There are people who come for reasons unrelated to tourism. It’s not mutual treatment or revenge; they just started getting stricter. I heard, regretfully, what happened to the education minister and the delegation of our mayor, and there were other incidents. The deputy mayors were detained on the way to the conference in Israel despite an invitation from the embassy. I think that there is an Israeli decision not to let the Ukrainians in because people plan to stay. There are people who stay, but they decided to punish everyone.”

The ambassador denied that Ukraine is considering canceling the visa waiver. “We worked hard to achieve it. It’s like going back to the Stone Age. We have a visa waiver agreement with more than 100 nations and only Israel began making problems. It’s being done on the diplomatic level.”

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in response that the treatment of Israeli tourists at Boryspil is apparently a direct reaction to what the Ukrainians feel is bad treatment of Ukrainian tourists at Ben Gurion. “The root of the problem is cynical taking advantage of the visa waiver between Israel and Ukraine,” the ministry emphasized. “The agreement is fundamentally positive; we worked for years to achieve it, and in the first years after it was signed it functioned well. The number of tourists between the two nations rose, and we reached a state where half a million people traveled between Israel and Ukraine. But things began to deteriorate about three years ago.

“People from Ukraine and other nations, including Georgia, began taking advantage of their ability to come to Israel without a visa in order to enter the country and then file for refugee status. Their goal is essentially to immigrate for work. They use the refugee clause in order to get to Israel. From the moment the petition is filed they are protected from deportation and they can legally work in Israel while their claim is processed. This takes between two and three years, and thousands have started to use this method to come here to work. An entire industry has developed that guides labor immigrants trying to get to Israel. They are offered cheap housing and work. The only place where the flood can be stopped is Ben Gurion, and that is what the Israeli Population Authority is trying to do.”

The one trying to reach a truce in this “war” is Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine Rabbi Joel Lyon. “I have spoken to very senior officials in Kiev,” he says. “We are not desisting from this issue. I hope we will be able to resolve the crisis in the near future.” At the request of Rabbi Lyon, the Foreign Ministry in Yerushalayim sent a delegation of security experts to negotiate with senior Ukrainian officials.

Ambassador Lyon and members of the delegation toured the Kiev airport where they questioned passengers arriving from Ben Gurion to learn about their entry process into Ukraine. “We found,” Ambassador Lyon said, “that most of the Ukrainian demands are similar to those of the border inspectors when entering Israel.”

This means that some of those demands are problematic. “When a person comes to daven at the kevarim of tzaddikim, he doesn’t have a voucher or proof that this is the purpose of his visit. In addition, when it’s a family trip, with children, for example, each passenger cannot have $50 in his pocket for each day of the trip. In general, people carry credit cards today. These are problematic issues that we will need to discuss directly with the Ukrainians on the highest levels,” the ambassador notes.

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner visited Israel as part of his efforts to mediate the long-standing Palestinian dispute. At the end of talks, which do not show great signs of reaching a resolution, Kushner suddenly asked, “Perhaps you want me to try and intervene in your war with the Ukrainians. … There I have a better chance of closing the deal.”



Israel’s First Chareidi Ambassador … to Kiev

Rabbi Joel Lyon worked for 25 years in Israel’s foreign service, but hardly anyone noticed him. Until a year ago, when he was appointed Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine and presented his credentials at the presidential residence in Kiev wearing his yarmulke.

There is something symbolic about Israel choosing a chareidi yeshivah graduate as the ambassador to Ukraine. He is the first chareidi in the Israeli foreign service to hold such a high post, and is working to bring about a “ceasefire” in the “visa war” between the two nations. In the interim, he uses his time to visit kivrei tzaddikim.

Rabbi Lyon has semichah from Rabbi Daniel Channen of Yeshivas Pirchei Shoshanim in Lakewood and from several other Rabbanim. “I was born 55 years ago in France, to a Yekkishe family, 23rd generation descendants of the Maharil,” he often says in conversation. He has a host of academic degrees and is completing his doctorate studies; he speaks Hebrew, English, French, German, Luxembourgish, Yiddish and Russian on conversational levels. At the age of 13, his parents sent him to learn in Eitz Chaim in Switzerland, under Harav Moshe Boczko, zt”l.

A few years later, he moved to Eretz Yisrael, where he learned in several yeshivos, served in the IDF and was hired by the Religious Affairs Ministry. After that, he served as the deputy Rabbi of the Jewish National Fund, until he decided that he was better suited for foreign service, and applied for the exclusive cadet course. He passed the course successfully, and began serving as a consul in Latvia, from where he moved to Austria, Germany and the United States before returning to the Foreign Ministry in Israel as the chief of staff of the deputy foreign minister.

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Ambassador Rabbi Joel Lyon

From there, it wasn’t far to being assigned an ambassadorship, and he was chosen for Ukraine. “In all these places, in all my jobs, I saw myself as a yeshivah bachur. In every speech, I tried to inject a bit of Yiddishkeit.” It wasn’t easy for him to maintain his level of observance during his service. “In international relations, there are no friendships, only interests,” he says.

“The only steady thing in my schedule is davening in shul. The rest is all based on the needs of the day and the hour, and dealing with different problems that arise, and there is no lack of those.”

Rabbi Lyon’s work to improve Israel’s relations with Kiev is set against the backdrop of another conflict — Kiev’s clash with Israel’s friend, Moscow. “Relations with Kiev have improved greatly, but still, that has not affected the very good ties we have with the Russians.”

To the question of whether there is anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the ambassador thinks for a minute and then says, “Yes, there is. But it’s not the type of anti-Semitism you see in France or Britain; it’s a different kind. There are hardly any violent acts. … There are swastikas, there are broken headstones and the like. It’s rare for a Jew to be physically assaulted. It’s a deeply ingrained anti-Semitism of people who don’t even realize that they are anti-Semites. That’s the problem. It’s an educational problem.”

Recently, Rabbi Lyon has dedicated a lot of time to resolving the “visa war.”

“We are in daily contact with the authorities, and they accede to most of our requests. If they would operate by the book they would have to check each Israeli that comes here, one by one, the way we check those coming to us in Lod. On Erev Rosh Hashanah they don’t do the strict inspections because they realize the importance of the arrival of thousands of people to the tziyun in Uman. More than 40,000 Israelis come, and not everyone is careful to avoid acts of chillul Hashem. There are even those that make a big chillul Hashem. When two Jews — by the way they were not Israelis, they were Americans — shatter a cross in Uman, that is a very big chillul Hashem.”

As for the deportation war, Rabbi Lyon explains: “The Ukrainians demand that the Israelis who come there have what is demanded of every other tourist, namely proof that they have $50 for each day that they plan to be there. They [the Ukrainians] want to see a hotel reservation or a place where they are staying. We at Lod demand the same thing of all the Ukrainians who come to Israel.

“So what? Is that anti-Semitism? They are not asking for a note from Reb Nachman that they were invited. The Ukrainians are just putting up a mirror to our behavior. Every incident that reaches me is dealt with immediately, and if the reason for deportation is not reasonable then they annul it immediately. But what can you do if someone comes and says he doesn’t have money, only a credit card, and then it emerges that there’s no credit on the card? Or that someone arrived without a return ticket?”

At the same time, the ambassador indicates that there is a plan to increase coordination at Ben Gurion and the Ukrainian airports, with the presence of more senior and more experienced officials on both sides to provide on-site solutions to questions that arise.

Will that bring about an end to the war? Perhaps. Let’s hope.


Ukraine is the Second Country in the World With a Jewish President & Prime Minister

The past few months have seen some of the most unexpected developments in internal Ukrainian politics. Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew who is proud of his heritage and speaks about it at every opportunity, was elected president of Ukraine with the largest majority of any candidate ever. Zelensky is not even a politician. He comes from the entertainment industry, notably in stand-up comedy shows.

In recent years, in a program called “Servant of the People,” he played the part of a young history teacher who rises through the ranks and is elected president of Ukraine after he promises to do away with all corruption. Before long, there wasn’t a person in Ukraine who didn’t know about Zelensky and view him as a figure worthy of being president.

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Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Just a year ago, the show’s producers established the Servant of the People party, named for the series, and placed Volodymyr Zelensky at the top of the party’s slate. Within a few weeks, all the early polls showed him to be the most popular candidate.

And then the unbelievable happened: Already in the first round, Zelensky won 30% of the votes, and faced off against the sitting president, Petro Poroshenko, who received just 15% of the vote. There was no doubt that Zelensky would win big the second time around, but no one imagined how significant the win would be. He received 73% of the votes — an unprecedented victory. And at age 41, he was also the youngest president ever elected. Moreover, it was the first time the job was being held by a Jew who is not ashamed of his Jewish identity.

He says that each morning, before he leaves for his office, he dons tefillin, and even murmurs a bit in Hebrew. The group of young people who worked to elect him is known in Kiev as “Zelensky’s Jerusalem band.” Almost all of them are Jewish.

The prime minister of Ukraine is Volodymyr Groysman, a Jew who is also proud of his religion and his ties to the State of Israel. He has a regular place in the Great Synagogue in Kiev and visits there frequently. He also has many relatives who are Holocaust survivors; some live in Ukraine and others live in Israel, mostly in Ashdod.

In contrast to Zelensky, Groysman is an experienced politician who, already at the age of 24, was elected a city councilor in Vinnytsia. Later, he became the mayor, and four years ago, at 38, was elected prime minister of Ukraine, with 250 members of parliament supporting his candidacy, and only 57 opposing it.

But a short time after being elected president, Zelensky announced that he was dissolving the government and going to elections, so Groysman will have to run again. Until then, Ukraine has a president and prime minister who are both Jewish — and is the only state in the world besides Israel to have two Jews in the most senior positions.

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Ukrainian president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

The question many are raising, though not publicly, is whether this creates a situation that might intensify anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Zelensky and Groysman both reject this concern. “All those who elected us knew already then that we are Jewish. We never concealed it, and yet, a large majority voted for us. Therefore, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

As proof that Ukrainian attitudes toward Jews and Israel have changed, the two cite figures showing that Ukrainian authorities have restored 85 out of 109 large shuls that closed during the Holocaust. But anti-Semitism has always existed in Ukraine to some extent. The question is if it will increase now.

Israel praises the positive aspects of the relations between the two nations, but does not ignore the fact that in the multinational Ukraine of today, there are frequent displays of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Hooligans destroy headstones and desecrate Holocaust memorials with Nazi-themed graffiti. Anti-Semitic literature is printed and disseminated freely. It’s also impossible to forget the dark days of the Holocaust when many Ukrainians joined the murderers of the Jews.

But there were also righteous Ukrainians who saved Jews during the war.

“We don’t have anti-Semitism on a state level, and we all understand that it is shameful,” say sources at the Ukrainian Embassy. “We don’t believe in listening to the fringe. But you know as well as we do that we experience the ramifications of the policies of the czars and the Communist regimes, and it is a very complex arena, in which there is anti-Semitism on a daily basis, and we have to fight that. It’s constant hard work, and we are doing it.”


Viewpoint From Ukraine

by Rafael Hoffman

Since shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi, Yaakov Dov Bleich, has been intimately involved in the county’s Jewish community and political life.

In a discussion with Hamodia, he said that the fact that the young nation’s two highest positions are occupied by Jews, President Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, belies a common perception of present-day Ukrainians as anti-Semitic.

While Mr. Groysman was chosen for his post from within parliament, Mr. Zelensky was popularly elected by tremendous margins.

“Zelensky is openly and proudly Jewish; it’s not something that he tries to hide and the fact that he won by the highest percentage ever in the history of Ukraine is compelling proof that the country has evolved into a healthy and tolerant democracy,” said Rabbi Bleich.

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Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich.

Mr. Groysman was appointed to lead the county’s parliament in 2016, but since Mr. Zelensky defeated former President Petro Poroshenko this past May, Ukraine’s distinction as the only nation besides the State of Israel with two Jews in such high-ranking positions garnered wide coverage in international Jewish media. Rabbi Bleich said that Ukrainians took notice as well.

“In Ukraine what was most emphasized was not only the election itself, but that their being Jewish didn’t play any role in the campaign at all,” he said. “Plenty of Americans told me that they didn’t think such an election would go as cleanly in America.”

Ukrainians have no shortage of violent anti-Semitism in their history. A series of pogroms in 1919 led by nationalist bands killed tens of thousands of Jews and collaboration with Nazi occupiers 20 years later was widespread. Several current elected officials have been criticized for efforts to honor fighters for Ukrainian independence such as Symon Petliura, who led armies that propagated pogroms, and Stepan Bandera, whose troops joined SS units in murdering Jews during World War II.

Yet, Rabbi Bleich says that attempts by Russian leader Vladimir Putin to smear Ukraine have done more to keep these images alive than the present reality.

“If there are two openly Jewish men leading the country, it goes a long way in showing that the myth peddled by Russia that Ukraine is a fascist country is not true,” he said.

Ultra-nationalist elements in the country such as Svoboda and Right Sektor do regularly play on anti-Semitic themes. While Mr. Zelensky’s term is still young, Rabbi Bleich said that even these groups have not made any targeted effort to blame national challenges on its Jewish leaders.

Regarding the ongoing war of ports of entry (the subject of the main article) between Ukraine and the State of Israel, Rabbi Bleich said that blame lays in a poorly handled political matter, unconnected to Ukrainian-Jewish relations.

“It’s only affecting people with Israeli passports, Jews from other countries have not had any problems that I heard of,” he said.

Rabbi Bleich supported the common narrative that after Israeli authorities became aware that the visa waiver was being abused by those attempting to migrate, security personnel at Ben Gurion initiated a crackdown that was both indiscriminate and unrestrained. In response, Ukrainian authorities began a much stricter enforcement of entry requirements sending many Israelis who failed to meet these standards back to Tel Aviv.

“They [Ukrainians] started enforcing the letter of every law and not quite the spirit of them, and if you didn’t have a certain amount of money or couldn’t say where you were staying, they sent you back, but they were civil in how they did it and didn’t become abusive. If you’ll notice, no Jewish groups or spokespeople stood up for what the Israelis were doing in this case,” said Rabbi Bleich.

Rabbi Bleich said that transitional stages in the governments of both Ukraine and Israel had prevented efforts to find a workable solution, but he was optimistic that it would be resolved in the near future.

“It’s been a very emotional issue on both sides,” he said. “It’s started to get a little better and there is talk of solutions like setting up a passport control in Ukraine for people traveling to Israel. It looks like they are starting to get on the right track.”