Sitting in his sister’s living room in Lod, outside Tel Aviv, Yuriy Yukhatskov says he’s glad to be far from his home city of Kiev.
Yukhatskov, 44, says that what he sees as the pervasive anti-Semitism in Ukraine’s capital will only grow worse with the country’s recent unrest. He fears that February’s revolution could lead to a government unfriendly to Jews.
Though Israel feels foreign to Yukhatskov, he’s grateful to be able to walk to synagogue wearing his kippah without enduring taunts or dirty looks.
His only problem is that Israel soon might kick him out for saying he’s a Christian — accidentally, he says.
Yukhatskov and his mother applied in 2011 to immigrate to Israel and join his sister, who moved here in 2008. His mother was approved, but things did not go as smoothly for Yukhatskov.
One of his answers on Israel’s extensive application for aliyah put Yukhatskov in bureaucratic limbo, where he’s been for nearly three years.
The form asked for his nationality, home country and religion. Under nationality he wrote “Jewish.” Under home country he wrote “Ukraine.” And under religion he wrote “Christian.”
Israel’s Law of Return allows anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to immigrate to the country. The only exceptions are Jews who have embraced another religion; Yukhatskov would be ineligible for aliyah if he were Christian. So based on his answer, Israel denied his application.
Of course he’s Jewish, Yukhatskov says, wearing a white-knit kippah. He says he misunderstood the form and thought the “religion” line referred to Ukraine’s religion, not his own.
“I didn’t write that I was Christian,” he said, his sister translating his Russian to Hebrew. “I didn’t understand what they were asking me. I wrote automatically that I was Jewish, but that the religion of the country is Christianity.”
The Israeli Population and Migration Authority has refused to accept Yukhatskov’s explanations, though it is allowing him to repeat the application process.
Sabin Haddad, the authority’s spokeswoman, stated that Yukhatskov “indicated on his aliyah form that he’s a Christian” and that “the claim that this is a mistake is completely irrelevant.”
At least 400 would-be immigrants from the former Soviet Union have made the same mistake as Yukhatskov, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder of Itim, an Israeli organization that guides people with religious status issues through the Israeli bureaucracy.
Itim has aided Yukhatskov in his reapplication process. If he is denied again, the organization said it may petition the Supreme Court to review his case and change the aliyah form.
“We realized there was a bigger issue here that would affect a lot more people,” Farber said. “There has to be a much deeper understanding between those who are in charge of aliyah and the local Jewish communities as to who is aliyah eligible.”
During the past three years, Yukhatskov has gone through a process he called “not even Soviet bureaucracy but even worse.” Upon denying his application, Israeli officials in Kiev told him he could go to Israel as a tourist and try to resolve the matter.
Yukhatskov has started the application from scratch and submitted it in Tel Aviv, this time writing “Jewish” as his religion. He attached a letter from one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis, Moshe Azman, attesting to his Jewishness and regular attendance in synagogue. Israeli Absorption Minister Sofa Landver also has sent a supporting letter to the Interior Ministry.
In February Yukhatskov was admitted with a tourist visa and has been allowed to stay until April 6, when he will have another interview regarding his application. If he is not approved, he will be sent back to Kiev.
Given the Interior Ministry’s previous refusals, chances of approval this time are slim, according to Farber. “Here’s a guy dealing with Kafkaesque bureaucracy,” he said. “We want to fight.”
“I don’t want to be disillusioned,” Yukhatskov said. “I really want the story to end well finally, so I have a chance to live here and be with the family. There’s no other way.”