Ukrainian Jewish Community in Peril

March 3, 2014

5 min read

Destruction in Ukraine after violent protests in the capital. (Photo: yaro_rt/Instagram)
Destruction in Ukraine after violent protests in the capital. (Photo: yaro_rt/Instagram)

Ukraine, mired in conflict for centuries, is now torn by political upheaval.  If recent events are any indication, it may be Ukraine’s minorities, such as its 200,000-strong Jewish community, which pay the heaviest price.

The former Soviet republic has long been afflicted by internal strife.  As early as the 17th century, the region was torn between Russian influences in the east and Western influences in the west.  Eastern Ukraine is home to a large Russian population, while Western Ukraine is predominantly, well, Ukrainian.

The current conflict was sparked last November by ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, who preferred to curry favor with the Kremlin and agreed to shelve an historic trade agreement with the European Union.  Protesters took to the streets and at least 100 people were killed.  Just over a week ago, after a brief but tense period of negotiations, a peace agreement was brokered between the two sides.  The agreement included a commitment to hold early elections, no later than December, and to reinstate the constitution of 2004.  Former PM and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison following the deal.  Then, the newly installed Parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from office, prompting him to flee the capital of Kiev.  A warrant has been issued for his arrest, but he has reportedly sought asylum in Russia.

Protests in Ukraine. (Photo: yaro_rt/Instagram)
Protests in Ukraine. (Photo: yaro_rt/Instagram)

Russia’s army is currently poised outside Crimea, a Ukrainian protectorate that is mainly peopled by Russians, and which is home to both the Ukrainian navy and the Russian Black Sea Fleet.  It came under Ukrainian jurisdiction in 1958, when the transfer was mostly symbolic as both Russia and Ukraine were part of the USSR.  When Ukraine became independent in 1991, tensions began to develop in the area.  Currently, Russia’s main concern seems to be that the new Ukrainian parliament, with its pro-Western sentiments, will evict the Russian Fleet from the strategic port.

Although a Western-leaning nationalist government sounds like a haven for minorities, there are great concerns that this is far from the case.  To begin with, the protest movement which now dominates the parliament also includes far-right groups, such as Svoboda and Pravy Sektor.  Pravy Sektor leader Aleksandr Muzychko pledged, back in 2007, he would fight “communists, Jews and Russians for as long as blood flows in [his] veins.”  Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, was accused of incitement and racism for saying Ukraine was run by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.”

Anti-semitic incidents are on the rise as well.  Several Jews have been attacked in recent weeks, including a Rabbi and a man on his way to synagogue.  An Orthodox synagogue was vandalized and a Reform synagogue was graffitied with the words “Death to Jews”.  In the latter case, vandals had to climb a 2-meter (over 6 feet) wall to access the synagogue.

“Clearly, it was important for the anti-Semites to commit this crime. Since the crisis began prices went up by 30%, pensions aren’t being paid. As usual, Jews are blamed (for) these disasters and Jews are held responsible. I am afraid to think how this will progress,” said Anatoly Gendin, the head of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Crimea.

Alex Selsky of the World Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry said that “the community has a fear that the anger [from the protests] will be directed at the Jews, as has happened in the past.”

According to MIchael Freund, founder and chairman of the organization Israel Returns, the uptick in anti-Semitic violence against Jews in the Ukraine is now a major impetus to help quicken the process to help Ukrainian Jews move to Israel.

“The dramatic events of the past few days only underline the dangers facing Ukrainian Jewry. With Russia and the Ukraine edging closer to the brink of war, it is essential that Israel act quickly to bring Ukrainian Jewry home as soon as possible,” Freund explained.

“As nationalist passions are inflamed in the Ukraine, it is inevitable that anger and hatred will turn against the Jews, which makes it all the more crucial that they be offered emergency assistance to emigrate to the Jewish state.”


Foreign Jewish groups and leaders are mobilizing to assist the embattled community in Ukraine.  The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews pledged to send $1 million to improve security in Jewish communities, as well as providing humanitarian aid.  The Jewish Agency also committed emergency funds to the area.

Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said in a statement that Ukraine is “one of most vibrant Jewish communities in the world, with dozens of active Jewish organizations and institutions. Recent events have shown that we must strengthen these institutions’ security measures. We have a moral responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Ukraine’s Jews.”

Yesh Atid MK Rina Frenkel was born in Ukraine.  She wrote a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to take steps to ensure the safety of her former community by bringing all of Ukraine’s Jews to Israel in a mass aliyah.

“Incitement is growing stronger. Newspapers and digital media mention ‘Jewish conspiracies’ every morning, anti-Semitic caricatures appear and in January, words turned into actions, as a local rabbi was attacked and a man was stabbed on the way to synagogue on Friday night,” Frenkel wrote.

“In light of recent events,” she added, “this community is under a clear and present danger. The State of Israel was founded on the background of our nation’s tragic history.”

“The establishment of an independent Jewish state with a sovereign government and an army is a way of saying ‘Never again.’ Now is the time to turn that saying into action,” Frenkel stated.

“Not only will Israel save these Jews from possible harm, we will finish the process that began in the 1990s in absorbing immigrants from the Soviet Union. After the successful integration of immigrants, I am sure that the rest of Ukrainian Jewry will contribute to the State of Israel and the aliyah will contribute to the immigrants themselves,” Frenkel wrote.

Freund’s organization is on the front lines fighting to bring Ukrainian Jews, primarily Subbotnik Jews, to Israel.

“The primary community of Subbotnik Jews that we at Shavei Israel are working with is in the village of Vysoky, which is near the Russian-Ukrainian border,” Freund said. “There are several hundred people in the village, all of whom want to make Aliyah, but there are various bureaucratic obstacles to overcome.”

Israel Returns has dispatched members of its team to Vysoky to work with the Jews there, ease bureaucratic hurdles, and help prepare the Subbotnik Jews for their ultimate journey home.

“Rabbi Zelig Avrasin, the Israel Return’s emissary to Vysoky, is working with the Subbotnik Jews, and he continues to organize daily services, Hebrew classes and lectures on Judaism,” Freund explained. “Here in Israel, I have been meeting with senior Israeli government officials with the goal of renewing the Aliyah of the Subbotnik Jews as soon as possible, and I hope that the community can soon come to Israel.”

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