The Ukrainian Jewish Community: Between a rock and a hard place
Mar 5, 2014 | Or Avi Guy
The unfolding turmoil in the Ukraine is now dominating headlines around the world. What started out as local demonstrations in opposition to now-ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev and other main cities has now become a major international emergency, with Russian forces seizing the Crimea. Meanwhile, the large Jewish population in the country is caught between a rock and a hard place, and with chaos potentially setting in, there is a growing concern that antisemitic incidents are also on the rise, and that Jewish institutions and communities are increasingly vulnerable to violent attacks.
These potential threats are heightened by the presence in the new governing coalition of an ultranationalist party with a history of antisemitic rhetoric, and also some antisemitic rhetoric coming from the angry and frustrated pro-Yanukovych, pro-Moscow groups.
A community under threat
Last week, on the night of February 23, seven Molotov cocktails were hurled at Giymat Rosa synagogue in Zaporozhye in eastern Ukraine, 250 miles southeast of Kiev. According to local Chabad officials, the synagogue sustained minor, “mostly cosmetic,” damage from the firebombs and fortunately there were no casualties in the attack. The perpetrators fled the scene immediately, but the act was caught on security camera.
Chabad Rabbi Nachum Ehrentrau said that efforts are bing made to ensure the safety of community members using the facilities:
“Our synagogue is surrounded by a barrier, the doors are all automatic, and we have round-the-clock security staff. In these uncertain times, we are, of course, even more cautious, doing all we can to ensure the safety of the community centre and its visitors.”
Also, last Thursday, just hours before Russian troops poured into Crimea, vandals spray painted swastikas and “death to Jews” on the only Reform synagogue in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol.
The attacks on the synagogues were the latest in a series of attacks on members of the Jewish communities in the Ukraine in recent months. Increasingly, swastikas have been spray-painted in Kiev. Only last month Dov Ber Glickman, a yeshiva student, was stabbed in the city and Hillel Wertheimer, an Israeli-born Hebrew teacher, was beaten on his way home from synagogue.
Following the violent incidents in January, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, said that the Ukrainian government and opposition were too tolerant of antisemitic statements and attacks on Jewish targets, and called on the government to protect Ukrainian Jews and act decisively against antisemitism. In light of the growing unrest and uncertainty, several Jewish community centres in Kiev have also sought to tighten security arrangements and some have even halted their activities because of safety considerations.
According to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman even advised Kiev’s Jewish residents to leave the city, and if possible the Ukraine, out of fear that the city’s Jewish population might be increasingly targeted by different hostile groups:
“I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too. I don’t want to tempt fate, but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”
In the meanwhile, Azman has closed the Jewish schools in his community, though prayer services continued. However, following Yanukovych’s flight from the Ukraine, Azman said he now perceived a decreased level of threat and changed his tone, saying that while it is advised that women and children do not go out onto the streets, “there is no need to run away from Ukraine.”
In contrast, Hatzalah Ukraine Chairman Rabbi Hillel Cohen suggested that the risks have not necessarily decreased following Yanukovych’s ouster:
“Now that Yanukovych is gone it appears to be over, but actually it is during transition times like these that the danger increases… until order is restored, we are recommending that everyone act with great caution.”
On the Chabad website, Rabbi Ehrentrau highlighted the state of confusion among the Jewish community that now prevails:
“On one hand, there are those who are urging people to evacuate. On the other hand, there are those who are minimizing the risks… in a time of chaos and uncertainty, we must keep a low profile and avoid unnecessary friction.”
Many other Jewish institutions have also suspended their activities. Eduard Dolinsky, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, explained that, at the moment, “most communities don’t do any activity that involves congregating.” In January, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee’s annual January 27 Holocaust remembrance ceremony had to be cancelled. He also expressed his concern that:
“if [the current situation] continues, then it will start to undo the fabric of the community and we will see damage to Jewish life, which has really progressed in this country.”
Prior to the firebomb attack on his synagogue, Rabbi Bleich had described the apprehension among the Jewish community:
“there is obviously a tremendous fear, and security has been tightened and strengthened at all Jewish buildings in Kiev. I may mention that the cost of the security is tremendous… The worsening situation is affecting all of Ukraine, and quite obviously the Jews as well.”
There is said to be a team of nine men now guarding Rabbi Bleich’s synagogue complex. To provide better protection for the congregation Rabbi Bleich’s confederation, which runs the Orach Chaim day school in Kiev, hired two private security firms. “Nobody goes alone at night,” Rabbi Bleich said, “so we have three people doing escorts from the synagogue and back”. The US-based Joint Distribution Committee (JDS), an organisation which runs aid charities for poor and elderly Ukrainian Jews, has also had to tighten security at its facilities in response to the bombing.
The cost of security services has increased by 10-fold since the violence erupted, and the communities fear that they will be unable to pay for these services for much longer. An online campaign has been launched on religious websites in the United States to collect funds to pay the security bills.
One of the main challenges during the recent violence in Kiev was the provision of medical essentials and food to elderly Jews. The JDC ran a special mitigation plan in Kiev, led by Ofer Glanz (the former JDC Soviet Union director). The plan was carried out by an emergency network of about 30 different charity operations, largely under “Hesed Kiev”, and includes volunteers and professionals who provide food and medical care to approximately 80,000 elderly and sick Jews.
The violence and unrest creates increasing isolation for the very weak within the Jewish community in the Ukraine. Glanz explained that:
“many are living in an area where there is violence and cannot leave home…It is not a nice situation: These elderly people are living alone and hear Molotov cocktails, crossfire and snipers.”
Glanz added that he has “seen people here – we consider them real heroes – supplying food to elderly clients in areas with snipers and Molotov cocktails. It is real avodat kodesh (holy work).”
The Jewish Agency for Israel has also promised immediate emergency aid “to ensure the safety and security of the community” from its Emergency Assistance Fund for Jewish Communities, which was created in 2012 following the terror attack in Toulouse.
David Shechter, the Jewish Agency spokesperson for the Russian-speaking media added in a separate statement that:
“We have our finger on the pulse and are prepared for every possible situation, though we hope we won’t have to resort to anything drastic…If it turns out that additional funding is necessary, we will increase this sum… We have been in touch with the heads of the various communities over the past week in order get an idea of exactly what their needs are, and now we have all that information.”
Shechter also expressed empathy towards the concerns of the Jewish community in such troubling times, “The Jews in Ukraine are all very afraid because they don’t know what is going to happen.”
According to figures published by the Jewish Agency, the Jewish community of Ukraine numbers about 200,000, including some who identify as Jewish but are not considered Jews under traditional religious law. However, some estimates are much higher – the European Jewish Congress and the Joint Distribution Community claim the number might be as high as 400,000. Ukrainian Jews mainly reside in Kiev, with additional large communities in Odessa, Lvov and Dnepropetrovsk.
New Government offers reassurances
In an attempt to address the concerns of the Ukrainian Jewish population, interim Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov promised Ukrainian Chief Rabbi and President of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine Rabbi Dov Bleich that the government would “make every effort to guard the Jewish community.”
The main armed nationalist groups which fought against government troops and police have made also important gestures in attempts to reassure the Jewish community. For example, Dmitro Yarosh, leader of Right Sector, met with the Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine, Reuven Din El, and assured him that his movement rejects antisemitism and xenophobia and will not tolerate it. The Right Sector’s goals, according to Yarosh are a democratic Ukraine, transparent government, ending corruption, and equal opportunity for all ethnic groups.
Sergei Mischenko, the leader of Spilna Sprava (“common cause”), one of the more radical factions involved in the campaign to oust Yanukovych, told Ukrainian Jewish journalist Eleonora Groisman in a recent interview that Jews will not have any problems with nationalists and shouldn’t worry. He added that:
“On the Maidan there were Jews with us who served in the Israeli Defense Forces. We got along excellently and fought shoulder to shoulder.”
Concerns over ultranationalist Svoboda party
Then there are concerns for the future. With elections slated for May 25, the possibility of ultranationalists gaining power in the Ukraine is a looming threat. This is especially the case of rightwing nationalist party Svoboda, which was very prominent in the protests.
Some Svoboda officials have expressed explicitly antisemitic sentiments in the past, some of its members reportedly participated in reburial and glorification of Nazi figures, and the have been linked to other ultranationalist parties, such as Hungary’s Jobbik party.
On the other hand, many Jews participated in the demonstrations and rallies in Maidan. According to Tablet Magazine, a rabbi offered a prayer for peace as part of one of the demonstrations and that a klezmer band performed Yiddish songs in the square.
Rabbi Bleich noted that Svoboda’s antisemitism is a minority element within the opposition, while
“The majority of the protesters are grassroots, regular, everyday old people from Ukraine that were fed up with living in a corrupt society, and they came out to protest against it and to try and make change, and they were successful in making change. There’s no question about that. That’s the majority. They’re not antisemites, they’re not right-wing, nationalist, neo-fascists or Nazis, the way the Russians have been trying to paint them.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL’s) Abraham Foxman also expressed the concerns of the Ukrainian Jewish community in light of the nationalist surge that was a big part of the drive behind the demonstrations and recent violence:
“The Ukrainian Jewish community is nervous. The ultra-nationalist Svoboda party, with its history of anti-Semitism and platform of ethnic nationalism… shared the political leadership of the Maidan revolution over the past months, and just this week received three ministries in the new Ukrainian government…While Svoboda’s leaders have refrained recently from making anti-Semitic statements, it is troubling that Oleksandr Sych, Svoboda’s chief ideologue, was named vice prime minister.”
Foxman is concerned that Sych’s speeches and public statements not only focused on promoting Ukrainian nationalism, but specifically exemplified the nationalistic percepts of Stepan Bandera, “a leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s who was at times aligned with the Nazis during World War II and was complicit in mass killings of Jews and Poles by Ukrainian partisans.”
“Will Vice Prime Minister Sych renounce Bandera and embrace Europe? Will Svoboda accept Jews as full-fledged Ukrainians and follow the welcome assurances of the armed nationalists?”
He concludes that:
“The future of the Ukrainian Jewish community could depend on the choices made by Svoboda and the actions of Ukraine’s democratic leaders… It is up to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk to ensure that anti-Semitism is not tolerated and that democratic norms are adhered to.”
The Russian Factor
Meanwhile there is the elephant (or rather perhaps the bear) in the room – Russia. Leaders of the Jewish community joined an appeal by several religious communities in Ukraine that calls on Russia to “stop its aggression against Ukraine” and pull out its troops.
A similar appeal was also made by the religious communities to the international community (US, UK, EU, UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE) to “stop foreign invasion into Ukraine and brutal interference into our internal affairs.”
Rabbi Bleich was among the signatories of the letter circulated by the Institute for Religious Freedom which reads:
“Dear Brothers and Sisters in Russia! The Ukrainian people have only friendly, fraternal feelings toward the Russian people. Do not believe the propaganda that enflames hostility between us. We want and we will continue to build friendly and fraternal relations with Russia but only as a sovereign and independent state.”
There are also reportedly some in the Jewish community who believe that it is pro-Moscow loyalists who may be responsible for many of the attacks on the Jewish community as a way to help discredit the new government in Kiev.
Joseph Zissels, the president of the Ukrainian Jewish community known as the Vaad, told American journalist Eli Lake that:
“websites affiliated with Yanukovych supporters had initially tried to blame the popular uprisings in the country that have raged since November on the Jews. ‘Now of course Yanukovych is not in power, but there is the possibility of his loyalists provoking the Jewish population,’ he said.”
There are about 17,000 Jewish residents in Crimea, mainly in and around Simferopol, Sevastopol, Feodosia and Yalta. Rabbi Michael Kapustin of the Ner Tamid Reform synagogue in Simferopol described the current situation in the region:
“The city is occupied by Russians. Apparently Russians intend to take over the Crimea and make it a part of Russia… In this case, I will leave this country since I want to live in democratic Ukraine.”
Religious services were cancelled in the area for security reasons.
Much like in Kiev, the JDC has activated emergency plans in the Crimea including delivery of food and medical supplies to the elderly, sick and poor, strengthening security around Jewish centres and institutions and even establishing emergency phone chains. The JDC added in a statement that it has “prepared appropriate contingency plans in case the situation worsens.”