MK Alon Tal on Israel and Ukraine
The transcript of our previously posted conversation
On Monday, we posted a conversation with Member of Knesset, Alon Tal, the only American-born and raised MK serving today. A member of the Blue and White party (Benny Gantz’s party), MK Tal reflected on Israel’s delicate situation in the horrifying war between Russia and Ukraine.
As we know that some people prefer reading to listening, here’s an abbreviated transcript of the most important parts of our conversation.
DG: First, thanks so much for making time on such short notice. I know you have to go hear President Zelenskyy shortly, so we’ll get right to it. Let’s start with Israel’s delicate dance between Russia and the West. How do you think Israel is doing on that score?
I think Israel is doing exceptionally well and it's not just because I'm supposed to say nice things about the government of change. I saw some polls this weekend in Yedioth Ahronoth that said 70% of even Likud members felt tremendous empathy with the Ukrainian people. The day after the invasion, I went on the record on i24NEWS condemning this violation of international law and we all, I think, at a very visceral level, feel that something horrible is going on and that Vladimir Putin is acting in a way which threatens ruled orders as we know it, and we hope that it will end quickly.
Having said that, we also recognize, and I think it's a consensus within Israel, that the situation is complex. Israel has responsibilities and interests which other Western countries don't have. Two in particular to start with-- there are 300,000, some people say only 100,000, Russian Jews. Those Jews are our responsibility. That's the essence of Zionism. When we created a Jewish state, we took on responsibility for the well-being and welfare of Jews around the world, particularly in their hours of need. And therefore, we do not have the luxury of alienating and infuriating Vladimir Putin and making the lives of our Russian brothers and sisters significantly worse, and even more importantly, closing the line that might enable them to leave Russia and move to Israel.
That's the first interest which we have to worry about. The second one is straight security. Right now, Israel enjoys, I think if I'm quoting international sources, not internal sources, we enjoy great freedom in the skies of Syria to pretty much do as we will. And Israel has done, I think, an exceptional job in making the Iranians pay for their ill-advised adventure to the north of us. They have no business in Syria, the Iranians, and they can only do bad there. And Israel, I think, both in the previous Netanyahu administration and certainly now in the last eight or nine months, has really hammered the Iranians, because that's a critical security interest in the long term. But we can only do that with the goodwill of the Russian interlopers and therefore, we have this very, very fine line to walk.
On the one hand, we really want to be on the right side of history and be with the forces of light and freedom, but at the same time, we have to do it in such a way which does not jeopardize critical interests and the wellbeing of Russian Jews. I think that Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister Lapid have done just that. I'm happy to expand, but I think we're doing exceptionally well given the complexity of the situation.
We'll hear from Zelenskyy tonight and see what kind of a report card he gives us. But I do know of conversations that were reported in the Israeli press between the Foreign Minister of Ukraine and Foreign Minister Lapid in which he thanked Israel for playing some sort of a role of the mediator. It's not clear and these are matters, as we say in Hebrew, Hashkita yafa lehem, it's better to talk less about it. But the fact is that if our shomer Shabbat [Sabbath observant] Prime Minister got on an airplane on Shabbat and spent three hours talking to Putin and has kept that line of communication open from outside of the war, this is something which is significant and obviously has the blessing of President Biden and the U.S. administration. There's no way that Bennett would have not gone there without that blessing. So that is something which I think we must remember that Israel can make a unique contribution and maybe we pay a price in terms of not being as dogmatic in the press and or being belligerent and self-righteous about our condemnation of Russia. But if we can indeed play several as a mediator and save lives, well, then I think it's a very good thing we're doing it.
DG: So, what is the status of the refugee policy today? What is Israel doing about Jewish refugees? And refugees who are related to Jews in some way or are related to Israelis and also refugees who are just human beings without any particular connection to Israel or the Jewish people.
Well, this is an interesting case. First, there are about 20,000, some people say more, Ukrainian people who came to Israel on tourist visas and never left. There's a large Ukrainian population in Israel. Some of them have friends, relatives or whatever and let's set this as a background.
But the policy that initially was set was that anybody who wants to come over from Ukraine has to make a I think it was a $5,000 deposit, and only then can they come in as a tourist. Now Israel has an agreement with Ukraine which said that anybody can come as a tourist in the same way that any French person can come as a tourist or Russian, for that matter. And so, there was something a little bit disingenuous about that to change that in their hour of need was something unusual. That, of course, has been canceled, and I think it was ill advised. As of last Wednesday, 6,500 Ukrainians who had no right to come to Israel as immigrants under the law of return showed up in Israel. I think 421 were rejected. In other words, 4% of the people who came over were not allowed in and that was only people who were flagrantly violating the Israeli law, mocking Israeli institutions and the like. But the vast, vast majority of 96% of people came in. And that's not talking about Jews that we've had come. I think we're up to 3,000 immigrants so far. I'm not up to speed, but there will be more, many more and bruchim habaim- welcome! That is indeed the raison d'etre of our country. But I think at present Israel has set a quota. It's probably going to have to increase it because this is something which is dynamic, and we’ll have to see. But when there's two now, maybe three million refugees, Israel needs to do its part, the international community is stepping up to the plate and doing so.
I think it would be well, to quote one of our senior ministers on this issue, Zev Elkin. He grew up in Kharkov. So, he is a Ukrainian Jew. So, when he met with the Russian ambassador and he was the translator for Bennett at the meeting with Putin, he has been very dispassionate. But obviously for him, this is intensely personal. But he makes the following point. I think it would be important for listeners to consider that the likelihood of a deluge of refugees coming and changing the delicate demographic balance of Israel is extremely unlikely. And that's because can you imagine the dilemma, the terrible dilemma which a Christian Ukrainian feels who's sitting in Poland. He can take a free train to Switzerland or Germany or three or four other European countries and have three years guaranteed housing, support, jobs, all the embrace he could want, or he could come to Israel for a three-month visa where he won't know the language, he'll be moving into harm's way, at least from the way they perceive our troubled neighborhood. What does he need that for? And he has to pay for the plane ticket, which is not inexpensive. So, there will be people who come because they either Israel has some kind of appeal to them or because they have friends and family here. But it will not be an overwhelming number, and we shouldn't be so terrified of a deluge, which is never going to happen. And I think that's an extremely important point for us to remember when we consider a prudent and an ethical policy for what is really a tremendous humanitarian challenge.
But I want to raise one other point, Danny, which may be a bit more controversial, but it's something which I know we feel in the Blue and White Party, and not only because the Minister of Absorption and Aliyah, Pnina Tamano-Shata, is from Ethiopia, but I think it's the spirit of our chairman, Benny Gantz, the Minister of Defense, who was very active in the secret and successful missions to bring Ethiopian Jews over to Israel. He was an officer in those operations. The fact of the matter is that for over a year now there has been an extremely bloody war going on in Ethiopia, which has had no less of a traumatic impact on the civilian population and the truth of the matter is that there is a large Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel, probably larger than the Ukrainian one, and they have family and they have desires to bring people over and there was no human cry or concern about their relatives or helping in humanitarian ways there.
So, my feeling is that Israel needs to sort of start making some public policy in this area and figure out what is our carrying capacity. It's not infinite. It's probably more than two or 3,000 refugees a year, but it's probably not more than 20,000. We've got to support these people. We have very complicated social mosaic to balance, but we should do it and maybe try to be more colorblind when we do so, because just because somebody has blonde hair or comes from Europe doesn't mean that they have a moral advantage over somebody whose shade of skin is a little darker. That's my own feeling, especially because of the Jewish people and the state of Israel's special relationship with Ethiopia.
DG: What kind of a national conversation do you think Israelis are having now about immigration, and what kind of a national conversation do you think Israelis need to have about immigration?
Well, we are all reminded of the trepidation to some sense, maybe the prejudice which was expressed 30 years ago when the Iron Curtain collapsed, and the Jews started to come over to Israel en-masse and there was great concern and there was stereotypes. But I think when we look back on it, we see the blessing that the Russian Aliyah has brought us. At the very least, it brought us all these phenomenal minds, which I think have been one of the main reasons that we're such a successful startup nation. My daughter went to the National School for the Arts in Tel Aviv and over half of her friends there were the children of former Soviet Union immigrants because they came with a commitment to culture. They enriched the quality of our orchestras and our culture. I mean, in the Knesset, there's a lot of them and they're fantastic. So, I think Israelis are remembering that and fearing this 100,000- 150,000, we hope, wave of immigration. Now let's get real about this. How many Jews are there in Ukraine? Sergio Della Pergola is maybe the best demographer of our day, certainly the most senior and he claims there are 45,000 Jews in Ukraine. That's all. So, remember, this is not the same as the Russians that came in over a million numbers. Not all of them will come. I don't think it's going to be quite as big a wave.
You asked what Israelis are feeling about it this conversation and I think that Israelis are beginning to recognize that we are a wealthy, powerful nation, that can lend a hand to people. And as a nation also, which is based on people which has such historic traumas and such a long history of persecution, perhaps we should be more sensitive and more open to it. There's no reason why Angela Merkel or the German government should have a policy which is more compassionate than Israel. We should all be on board with that issue.
DG: Is that actually where the electorate is, because I was reading some polls over the course of Shabbat, which seemed to indicate that some 70% were pretty much in favor of very strict limits. Some 30 something percent were in favor of opening it up more. What's your sense as a politician and a member of Knesset of what the people would like to see happen now?
My sense is that, yes, the majority of people do not want to have unlimited access to Israel. We have economic constraints. It would be very hard for us, and it would not be responsible to some extent to take in so many people. It’s better to take fewer and do it right. That's my view. Then the question, the million-dollar question is how many? How many is enough? I would like to say let's start with 5,000. Let's get them set up. Let's see what the situation is. If we see that there's going to be refugees for many years to come or for a long period of time, we could probably take in more. We might want to be more selective. We might want to start setting criteria to make sure these people can come here and flourish and contribute. We do want people to come here and for us to be blessed by them and for them to be blessed by us. And that's something which might take a little longer, but immediately, initially, pretty much all Ukrainians, I think, who show up and they're willing to take a three-month visa will get it, and then we'll kind of figure it out as we go along.
DG: When it comes to the refugees, you were talking before about how much Russian immigrants have really enriched Israeli society. They have really done exceedingly well. But here's the underside: you and I also know that there are doctors and there are people who have PhDs in chemistry, who cleaned stairwells of buildings for many, many years. In other words, there's all the these success stories, but there's also a lot of “not-success” stories. A lot of these people really were forced into very, very menial labor because they didn't know Hebrew. They couldn't learn Hebrew during the day because they had to make a living. And then, because they didn’t know Hebrew, they couldn’t get a job. And the question that I wanted to ask you is, are we better prepared this time? Has the country learned anything in terms of integrating immigrants?
That is a really good question. First, I think that throughout history, people who pick up and moved did so because there's always the push and the pull and they knew it involved a certain risk. My grandfather of blessed memory, whose picture I have here with Menachem Begin, was a student and a follower of Jabotinsky. He moved to the United States and was maybe the most brilliant man I ever met. He worked in fruit stands and eventually worked his way up to being a carpenter and finally had enough money to be able to do something and he got his degree at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. So, the point is that all immigrants realize they're going to pay a price in transition unless they're some of the lucky ones that are recruited by Google because they happen to be a great programmer.
I do believe, though, that the notion that we now live in a globalized economy and the world is flat and that hopefully they come with language skills that they didn't have before, certainly English language skills in the robust high-tech industry will allow some of them to do better. We've learned Israel has a tremendous shortage of doctors. I sit on the health committee of the Knesset and it's very frightening. We have the oldest doctors in the world because we just can't let them retire. And we were saved 30 years ago by the Russian doctors. Yes, they cleaned buildings, but eventually those who had the better education, the more qualified ones did pass the Israeli medical exams, and they are still manning the wards and taking care of patients. And thank heavens they came. Remember, 60% of Israeli doctors studied abroad anyway.
But yes, I assume that in many cases, there will be those people who are not professionally fulfilled and are not self-actualized, and they'll pay a price, but usually when they come, I think they're thinking about the next generation and asking whether they will be able to give their kids a better life.
DG: It's always been kind of a watchword that America has Israel's back and I don't want to get into the question of Democratic presidents and Republican presidents, we will leave all of that completely aside, but the sense has been that America has our back. Israelis are watching Ukraine. It's getting weapons and it's getting support in a lot of ways. But at the end of the day, the Ukrainians are battling for their survival on their own without any Western soldiers to speak of coming in and it's making some Israelis that I talk to, especially our students here at Shalem College, or with people at the Shabbat table or in the neighborhood, say, you know, actually, “that's us.” Let's not fool ourselves: if one day Iran crosses the nuclear threshold and starts to encroach on Israel in one way, shape, or form—then we're on our own. At the end of the day, they'll say all kinds of nice things, and they'll send weapons, and there'll be declarations in the United Nations. But if we're learning anything from Ukraine in February and March of 2022 it is that we are in this business on our own. Do you share that sentiment?
Professor Gordis, you have very smart students at Shalem College. I think when I think about Israel's long-term military strategy, we can just go back to Hillel Hazaken, who said “Ime ein ani li mi li” (If I am not for myself, who will be for me?) That's what it's all about. If we're not going to do that, nobody's going to do it for us, and this is justification. We look at that defense budget and believe me, we get a lot of heat in our party because it's a lot of money and we say we want to bring good pensions so that the best and brightest Israeli young people will want to stay in the army. There's a reason for that, because only by maintaining that advantage, we'll be able to retain our independence and our sovereignty here in this very house.
And I think the other scary thing that we’re seeing is the inability of the West to stand up to Putin given his nuclear capability. So, is Iran seeing that? Is Saudi Arabia seeing that? Is Egypt? I think this has been a bad time for people who are against nuclear proliferation because the lesson is clear, and it doesn't favor the weak. I think your students are spot on. And what does it mean? It means we just have to keep on doing what we're doing and hope that this new neighborhood and partners that we have after the Abraham Accords realizes that Israel can be a valuable member of that coalition, that's really we have to think about, maybe one day we'll have a NATO presence here that we can be at the heart of, which will protect us against the kind of narrative that exists now in Iran.
For a very different take, by one of Israel’s leading security experts, on what Israel needs to consider in the balance between “being on the right side of history” and its own national security, you might want to read this column by Efraim Inbar, “Israel's Ukraine policy: ‘Right side of history’ vs national interest” in The Jerusalem Post.
Since many of our readers will be busy and otherwise occupied during the Passover holiday, during the weeks of April 18 and 25 we will not be posting regular columns and podcasts, though we will post something for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The regular schedule will resume on the week of May 2.
Our twitter feed is here; feel free to join there, too.