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Ukraine Jews Hunkering Down Amid Turmoil
The turmoil in Ukraine has left one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities on edge.
After an outbreak of violence in Kiev last week that left dozens of protesters and policemen dead, President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital and parliament installed an interim leader to take the still-contested reins of power.
Like their compatriots, Ukraine’s Jews are waiting to see what the future holds for their country, but with the added fear that they could become targets amid the chaos. There have been a few isolated anti-Semitic incidents over the past few months of civil strife. On Feb. 23 in the eastern city of Zaporizhia, a synagogue was firebombed with Molotov cocktails, causing minor damage.
While Kiev has been relatively calm since Yanukovych fled the capital, the situation in the country’s eastern and southern regions, where he has his base of support, is more volatile. Tensions between the local governments and revolutionaries continue to rise in the eastern city of Kharkiv, which has a relatively sizable Jewish community.
“It’s still a very fluid situation,” said Mark Levin, chairman of the NCSJ, an American organization that advocates for Jews in the former Soviet Union. “The big concern, I think, is ensuring that there’s adequate security for Jewish institutions throughout the country, but particularly in the large cities. And I think that’s where much of the focus within the American Jewish community and Israel lies — that and making sure the flow of services continues.”
Levin also expressed concern that with elections slated for May 25, a future government could result in ultranationalists gaining power in Ukraine. Svoboda, a right-wing nationalist party, was prominent in the protest movement, and party officials have expressed virulently anti-Semitic sentiments.
Thus far, though, the conflict has not been marked by incitement against Ukraine’s multiple national minorities, Oksana Galkevich, a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, said from Kharkiv on Feb. 21.
“The overall situation in relation to the Jewish community in Ukraine is tolerant and peaceful,” said Vadim Rabinovich, president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, in a statement issued on Feb. 24. “There have been no mass outbursts or exacerbation of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.”
Rabinovich rejected as untrue foreign press reports of mass anti-Semitism in the country and called them “not conducive to a peaceful life of the Jewish community.” He vowed that the Jewish community would participate “in building a democratic state and promoting the revival and prosperity of the country.”
Estimates of the size of Ukraine’s Jewish community vary widely. Some commonly cited statistics suggest the country has only 70,000 Jews, while the European Jewish Congress and the JDC say there are as many as 400,000.
Over the past few months, many Jewish institutions have simply gone into hibernation, suspending activity during the turmoil. But others have carried on their work under heavy security.
The Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, which runs the Orach Chaim day school in Kiev and several other institutions, has been paying $1,000 a day for round-the-clock security by teams from two private firms, one of which also provides security for the Israeli embassy in Kiev. Together, staff guard nine buildings, including four school buildings, a community center, a synagogue and a religious seminary, according to Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, the confederation’s president and a Ukrainian chief rabbi.
“Nobody goes alone at night, so we have three people doing escorts from the synagogue and back,” he said last week. Meanwhile, security on the “Jewish campus” — the area around Kiev’s Podol Synagogue — is maintained by a team of nine people.
The guards have chased off a few trespassers but encountered no serious threats in Kiev. But the cost — 10 times what the community used to pay for security before the violence erupted — means the community cannot afford this level of security for much longer.
The Joint Distribution Committee also has promoted security measures to protect staff and volunteers. After the firebombing of the Zaporizhia synagogue, JDC reinforced security measures for its charity organization in the city.
The JDC has been continuing to provide assistance to elderly and homebound Jews living in areas of Ukraine that have been affected by the unrest.
With Yanukovych ousted and avoiding the acting government’s warrant for his arrest for alleged murder, many hope the situation will stabilize as the country prepares for the elections. But if it doesn’t, Bleich’s community may not be able to keep its institutions running for another month.
“We already paid the bill for January, and now we have to pay the bill for February, and it’s a big one,” Bleich said on Feb. 21.
His community has launched an online campaign on religious websites in the United States aimed at collecting additional funds. The Lauder Foundation is providing payment for security in three community-run schools.
“Most communities don’t do any activity that involves congregating,” said Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee. In January, his organization canceled its annual Jan. 27 Holocaust remembrance ceremony.
“For a few weeks it’s still OK,” he said, “but if this 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.”
Rabbi Moshe Azman of Kiev, who is another claimant to the title of chief rabbi of Ukraine, advised Jews in media interviews to keep a low profile until the situation calms down.
Hillel Cohen, who is responsible for the Hatzolah Jewish first aid service in Kiev, did not heed Azman’s advice. On Feb. 21, he and other volunteers were driving in the Hatzolah ambulance in an attempt to help Jews in need of medical attention.
But he conceded that driving last week amid the burning barricades of Kiev was at times a blood-chilling experience.
“Things began getting really uneasy when the rioters started setting up spontaneous roadblocks to keep police and army troops from reaching the action zone,” he said. “It was very uneasy, being pulled over in a car full of Orthodox Jews by club-wielding Cossacks.”
While the prominence of ultranationalists within the opposition protests has caused concern, Jews also have been active participants in rallies held in Ukraine’s Independence Square, or Maidan. Tablet Magazine spoke to a source who noted that a rabbi offered a prayer for peace at the demonstration and that a klezmer band performed Yiddish songs in the square.
Bleich, who is visiting the United States, was asked in a radio interview on Sunday night, following Yanukovych’s ouster, about concerns over anti-Semitism within the ranks of the protesters.
“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,” he said. “There’s no question about that. That’s the majority. They’re not anti-Semites, they’re not right-wing, nationalist, neo-fascists or Nazis, the way the Russians have been trying to paint them.”
But Bleich cautioned that there is a minority element within the opposition that is anti-Semitic, citing Svoboda.
“The Jewish community has to stay vigil and see what’s going to be,” he said. “What’s going to happen with this new government? Are they going to be a part of the government?”
Bleich said he has received assurances from opposition leaders that they will not tolerate anti-Semitism.