Tens of thousands of Ukrainian immigrants are coming these days to Israel, posing a serious challenge to the country. On the one hand, they are refugees seeking asylum from a brutal war. On the other hand, Israel is not like any other country, and people who come here must be ready and willing to take on the task of being Israelis, or their absorption will be unsuccessful and they will resent the country that gave them a haven. Being Israeli in the full sense of the word is a great challenge, and teaching people to be a part of the people of Israel is a challenge for the state. But only if both are achieved will the refugees become Israelis and will be happy in their new home.
In the terrorist attack on Tuesday evening in the orthodox city of Bnei Brak, two of the five victims were Ukrainians who came to Israel before the war to work. Another victim was an Arab Israeli police officer who confronted one of the terrorists and was shot in the chest before firing back and killing the assailant.
Terror does not distinguish between nationalities or faiths, and in many ways, this is the essence of living in Israel. It is a land that demands certain traits from its residents. For those who possess them, it is “a good and spacious land … flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8). For those who do not possess the required traits, Israel becomes “a land that devours its inhabitants” (Num. 13:32).
At the moment, the people who are living in Israel do not constitute a nation. They are defined as Israelis, at least the Jewish residents feel as Israelis, but their definition of what it means to be an Israeli varies greatly. Division is everywhere, mutual contempt is the norm, and the country is on its way to internal breakdown. In such a setting, adding Ukrainians to the clutter will only exacerbate the problems.
But any challenge is also an opportunity. If we rise to the challenge and launch a national program for enhancing unity and solidarity in the nation, the lemon will become a sweet lemonade. If we do not, it will become a very sour lime.
Solidarity pertains not only to newcomers from Ukraine. It has been a problem since the establishment of Israel. Like the original Israeli people, today’s Israelis come from all the cultures in the world. They immigrated to Israel from different lifestyles, standards of living, customs, traditions, and levels of education. But unlike our ancestors, who chose to become Jewish, from the Hebrew word Yehudi, meaning united, the immigrants who formed present-day Israel, especially after its official establishment in 1948, fled here from persecution or financial hardships, to improve their personal security and financial situation, and not in order to reunite the nation.
There have been exceptions, of course, and Zionist movements had a clear ideology of rebuilding a Jewish home specifically in the Biblical land of Israel, but especially after the establishment of the State of Israel, and to an extent, even before, ideology was not the key factor in deciding to immigrate to Israel, if at all.
Yet, even back then, when Zionism was the motivation, unity of the entire nation, above all differences, was not the goal. The lack of this aspiration has been the Achilles’ heel of Israel since the beginning of the Zionist movement.
The State of Israel will flourish and be safe only when its people unite. Just as terror does not distinguish between nations and cultures, Israelis should not make distinctions, but anyone who lives here should have one single ideology: unity above differences.
Unity does not mean sameness. On the contrary, when different people unite and form a tight bond, their unity becomes much stronger than that of similar people. The effort they had had to exert in order to build their union makes it that much stronger than those who feel natural affinity toward each other.
While the founders of the state did not succeed in forging unity within the nation, they were keenly aware of its vitality to our success. A notable example of this was David Ben Gurion, leader of the Jewish community in Israel before the establishment of Israel, and the country’s first Prime Minister. Ben Gurion wrote, “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is the supreme commandment of Judaism. With these three words [the length of the sentence in Hebrew], the eternal, human law of Judaism has been formed… The state of Israel will be worthy of its name only if its social, economic, political, and judicial structures are based upon these three eternal words.”
Until today, we have not been able to live by these three eternal words. Perhaps the challenge that the Ukrainian refugees pose to the State of Israel will trigger a sincere attempt to forge that badly needed union.
Ukrainian refugees are seen arriving in Israel as part of Operation Israeli Guarantee, on March 6, 2022. (photo credit: Sraya Diamant/GPO)