CHISINAU, Moldova — At a synagogue in central Chisinau on Monday, an Israeli social worker, Omer Hod, had a flash of historic vertigo. Ms Hod’s ancestors had lived in Chisinau more than a century ago, surviving a devastating pogrom in 1903 before emigrating to what became Israel. Now their descendant had returned to the Moldavian capital – this time not as a victim, but as a rescuer.
“It’s like a closure for me,” said Ms. Hod, a 26-year-old from Jerusalem who had come to Chisinau to help evacuate thousands of Jewish refugees from Ukraine to Israel.
“At the time, it was almost a shame to be Jewish,” Ms Hod said. “Now people want to show they are Jewish so they can be evacuated.”
Today, as in the early 1900s, Jews are once again escaping violence in southeastern Europe. But the context is radically different — cathartically for the many Israelis who have come here to join the relief effort.
A century ago, Jews fled widespread anti-Semitic attacks in cities like Chisinau and Odessa — pogroms that prompted early Zionists to emigrate independently to Palestine. Today, the violence is not anti-Semitic. And this time, representatives of the Jewish state, along with an unusually large number of independent Israeli humanitarian organizations, are now waiting at Ukraine’s borders to guide Ukrainian Jews to Israel.
The Chisinau pogrom, also known as the Kishinev pogrom, “was a very pivotal event that drove modern Zionism,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a telephone interview Monday. “In the same Kishinev, right now, we are saving Jews,” Bennett added. “Israel’s raison d’être is to be a safe haven for every Jew in danger. We didn’t have it in 1903. We have it now.
The Israeli government expects 20,000 Ukrainian Jews to emigrate to Israel, or 10% of the estimated Jewish population in Ukraine, and says it is also seeing an increase in applications from Russian Jews. More than 2,000 Ukrainians have already been airlifted to Israel since the start of the war, nearly 500 of whom have at least one Jewish grandparent.
Teams from the Jewish Agency, a non-profit organization that operates in coordination with the Israeli government and assists Jews interested in immigrating to Israel, are waiting in several European countries to organize their emigration. Israeli aid and emergency groups like United Hatzalah of Israel and IsraAID are at border crossings to provide medical and psychological support, to Jews and non-Jews alike, and often to provide temporary housing. Israeli airliners wait at regional airports to transport new immigrants to Tel Aviv.
At the diplomatic level, Mr. Bennett played a central role in the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. While he has been criticized for not taking a tougher stance against the Russian invasion, Mr Bennett’s neutral stance has allowed him to take on a mediating role that analysts say is unprecedented for an Israeli leader during a war between other countries.
This combined Israeli aid and diplomatic effort has moved many Israelis, especially those on the ground in Europe.
“It feels like some sort of reparation,” said Jill Shames, another Israeli social worker at the synagogue whose ancestors also escaped nearby pogroms in the late 1800s.
Like Ms. Hod, Ms. Shames provided psychological support to refugees on behalf of United Hatzalah. “We are doing now what we couldn’t do then,” Ms Shames said.
The Agudath Israel Synagogue is one of many hubs in the city serving as a staging post for Ukrainian Jews en route to Israel. On Monday, the building was a packed carousel of people coming and going, some just arriving from the border, others cramming into buses that would take them to an airport in eastern Romania. Some families slept in the synagogue itself, a few feet from its Torah scrolls.
Most were too exhausted to think of any grand historical parallels.
“Nothing particularly strikes me at the moment – I had such a difficult week and a half,” said Israel Barak, a 71-year-old Israeli who had just arrived from a village near Kiev, where he had lived with his Ukrainian wife. For four years. The couple had managed to bring their cat, Belka, but not their dog – a thought that brought Mr Barak to tears.
Many had only a distant connection with Judaism. Mr. Barak’s wife, Tatiana Khochlova, 66, is a non-Jew who does not speak Hebrew; the couple met on a dating site and communicated through an online translator app.
“I never thought I would do something like this!” Ms. Khochlova said in Russian, via a translator.
Nearby, a young woman from Kiev said she and her mother were more likely to travel to Europe than to Israel.
“Israel is quite far, and we have a dog,” said Daria Ishchenko, 23, pointing to her beagle, Barcelona. “I’m not ashamed to say I’m Jewish or I’m Ukrainian,” she said. But “we are not so religious”.
Hurrying back and forth, the Chief Rabbi of Moldova, Pinhas Zaltzman, complained about the lack of funding from international donors, including the Israeli government; Rabbi Zaltzman had invested his own savings in the relief effort and had only $1,700 left, he said.
At least half of the people the rabbi sent by bus to Romania had no documents proving their Jewish roots, he said.
“We do everything we can to help every human being,” Rabbi Zaltzman said. “We don’t check.”
For some Jews in Israel, this fact has caused unease – both out of fear that it could dilute Israel’s Jewish character, and because it is a laissez-faire approach that some say was not granted to applicants for immigration of other Jewish origins, including Jews of Ethiopian origin.
Russo-Ukrainian war: what you need to know
Pnina Tamano-Shata, an Ethiopian-born minister in the Israeli cabinet, accused her colleagues of double standards in a TV interview last week, calling the discrimination against Ethiopian Jews “disheartening.”
Others have argued that Israel should, in fact, do even more to welcome non-Jewish Ukrainians. And many have also warned that for all the fanfare with which the Israeli state now welcomes Ukrainian Jews, it did not make life any easier for the first waves of Ukrainians and other Russian-speaking Jews who arrived in the 1990s.
About a million Russian-speaking Jews emigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of whom qualified for Israeli citizenship through their Jewish ancestry but are not considered Jews by the Israeli religious establishment because they do not have a Jewish mother or have not converted. to Orthodox Judaism. This makes it harder for them to marry or receive a religious burial.
For the new wave of Ukrainian immigrants, “this will be a long-term problem,” said Ksenia Svetlova, a Russian-born Israeli commentator and former lawmaker. “They will come up against the iron wall of the rabbinate,” or the religious establishment. “The question of their status will arise when they want to get married here or, God forbid, die here,” Ms Svetlova added.
For Palestinians, the prospect of a new wave of Jewish immigrants raises the possibility that some will settle in the occupied West Bank, making it even more difficult to establish a Palestinian state there. Thousands of Russian-speakers from the first waves of immigration now live in the West Bank, including the current finance minister.
Israel welcomes Ukrainians “at the expense of Palestinians and their land,” said Nehad Abu Ghosh, a Palestinian political analyst and independent member of the Palestinian National Council.
But in the synagogue in Chisinau, what mattered most was that thousands of refugees were finally safe.
“I feel like history has been turned upside down,” said Ms Shames, the social worker from south-east Europe.
As if to illustrate her point, Ms. Shames was approached by a passing Moldovan.
“From Israel? the woman asked Mrs. Shames.
Then the woman smiled and unbuttoned her jacket to reveal her necklace.
It was a Star of David.
Reporting was provided by Myra Noveck in Jerusalem, Gabby Sobelman in Rehovot, Israel, and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa, Israel.