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Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees arrive to different treatment in Israel

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As Russia's war on Ukraine continues, it's getting harder for leaders in Israel to maintain good relations with both sides. Israel relies on Russia for help on security in Syria, but there's pressure on it to do more for Ukraine. Israel is taking in Ukrainian refugees, but now it's unclear how many non-Jewish refugees are welcome. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israel has a two-tiered system on Ukrainians fleeing war. Jewish Ukrainians are airlifted to Israel every day and given citizenship. Non-Jewish Ukrainians have been treated differently. Outside the arrivals hall at the Tel Aviv airport, Alona Torchinava, who lives in Israel, is in tears greeting her mother who escaped Ukraine. Her mom is not Jewish. She will need to leave when the war is over.

ALONA TORCHINAVA: It is not Europe or - this is Israel. It's a religion country. It is - they afraid that people will stay here. It is not normal, I think (laughter).

ESTRIN: While about 8,000 Jewish and non-Jewish refugees have been welcomed, activists say hundreds of non-Jewish Ukrainians have been detained or put back on airplanes. Most Israelis we meet at the airport think the country should help Ukrainian refugees fleeing war, no matter their religion. Israel's conservative Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked told reporters she'll let in all non-Jewish Ukrainians with family in Israel. But some families still have to put down large deposits to ensure relatives will leave after the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AYELET SHAKED: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: The minister said, "we as the Jewish people have been persecuted and understand the refugee experience. We are opening our hearts and our doors to people who are not eligible to immigrate, but that must be in a limited capacity." The Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, has called on Israel to follow some European countries in allowing in unlimited refugees and accepting a video speech in its parliament by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The ambassador told reporters he has struggled to arrange one for Israel's parliament.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YEVGEN KORNIYCHUK: I don't think it's the proper excuse that the Knesset members are on holidays or some chairs at the office are under the renovation.

ESTRIN: Israel has what it sees as important security and diplomatic ties with Russia. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with President Vladimir Putin for 90 minutes today and with Ukraine's president this weekend. Ukraine has encouraged Israel's mediation but is pressuring Israel to do more, like end commercial ties with Russia. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told Israeli TV that Israel should join financial sanctions on Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICTORIA NULAND: You don't want to become the last haven for dirty money that's fueling Putin's wars.

ESTRIN: Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has condemned the invasion and says Israel is working to make sure, quote, "Israel will not be a route to bypass sanctions." This weekend, Zelenskyy said Jerusalem could be a place for negotiations. Jerusalem lit up the Old City walls last night with Ukrainian and Russian flags and doves. But an Israeli city council member opposed the display of a Russian flag, and the city took down the entire spectacle. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND TRIBE SECTOR 9'S "TOKYO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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