Things are getting frightening for Jews in Ukraine. Since the installation of the new interim government which was responsible for ousting President Viktor Yanukovych, Neo-Nazism is running rampant. On April 17, Jews leaving a synagogue in Donetsk, Ukraine were served a notice telling them to register and pay a tax on their possessions. On April 19, a synagogue in Nikolayev, Ukraine was firebombed on a Saturday in the early morning before worshipers arrived. Now Jews are seeking to flee to Israel. Why the “sudden” interest in targeting Jews, one may ask?
With a population of 112,000 Jews out of 45,547,800 total Ukrainians (0.24 percent), Ukraine is the eighth most populous place for Jews in the world, after the U.S., Israel, France, Canada, Britain, Russia, and Argentina. Donetsk, the city where the pamphlets addressed “citizens of Jewish nationality” has a Jewish population of 17,000 out of 953,400 or 1.7 percent.
Jews have a long history in Ukraine. Jewish communities in Ukraine can be identified as far back as the eighth century. During that time, Jews integrated into the culture and intermarried with the Khazar people. There were massacres throughout the years. Then in 1821 Tsarist Russia witnessed a rash of pogroms, in which Jews were violently persecuted in Odessa, which is now the third largest city in Ukraine.
At the time, the city had one of the highest numbers of Jews in the Pale of Settlement – the territories of the Russian Empire where Jews were permitted and required by Empress Catherine II in 1791 to form “permanent” settlements. The settlement led to the creation of shtetls, or Jewish provincial towns. The congregation of Jews along Germany’s border eased the path for their extermination by the Nazis. Pogroms would resurface in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in which thousands of Jews were murdered and those who could, emigrated, mainly to the U.S. The Pale continued until the Russian Revolution in 1917, when many Jews dispersed and migrated to other parts of the Soviet Union.
In the 1930s, before World War II, just under one-third of Ukraine’s entire population in the cities was Jewish. The estimate from 1941 was 2,700,000 Jews in Ukraine. The Nazis murdered close to one million Ukrainian Jews, and they made complicit their Ukrainian fellow countrymen. Following WWII, Jews were persecuted under the Soviet regime. By 1959 only 840,500 Jews were left in Ukraine. A Soviet census in 1989 counted just 487,000 Jews living in the country. In recent years, an effort had been underway to revive the Jewish community in Ukraine.
According to an organization that assists Jews to immigrate to Israel, the situation has a number of Jews worried about a potential Russian invasion. Currently, there are 40,000 Russian troops positioned near the Ukraine border, and the mood in Ukraine is one of fear of impending war. Although several groups claim the leaflets were false and pro-Russian forces repudiate the claim that they were responsible for them, the heightened tensions give many Jews pause. There are no public numbers as yet, but some recognize that fleeing the situation may be the safest.
Jews have been persecuted, massacred and tortured since the death of Jesus, and often in the name of Christ. These oppressions have been small and large, some pushing Jews from the lands on which they lived, but none has been as all-encompassing as the Nazi Holocaust, which systematically stripped Jews of all rights and options, and resulted in the murder of six million Jews, among others, who were also deemed “impure.” For the past 20 years, Anti-Semitism has been on the rise, with significant examples of hate crimes in Europe and Russia.
In 1990, a Ukrainian survey showed that seven percent of the country believed that Jews were actively trying to take over the political and social circles in Ukraine. The latest propaganda against Jews is that Zionists want to bring together Ukraine and Europe, and to cause the country to secede from its Slavic brothers. In Ukraine, anti-Semitism and provocative acts against Jews have not been this high since the Second World War. A Jewish Auschwitz survivor from Poland who lives in London, England, Sam Pivnik, 86, says that as long as Jews remain in Ukraine, anti-Semitism will continue to affect them. He urges Jews to leave their homeland of Ukraine, saying that nothing good will come of staying.
Alexander Ivanchenko, founder of Sohnut, the aforementioned organization assisting people to immigrate to Israel, warns Jews that, especially with a destabilized military situation, it would be very easy for people to “decide to play the Jewish card.” He stated that things could quickly go out of control. For example, people wearing masks, called balaclavas, could enter synagogues and beat or rob worshippers. Ivanchenko believes that Jews will flee Ukraine when they realize that the option of “repatriating to Israel” is stronger than that of remaining.
By Fern Remedi-Brown
Fern Remedi-Brown writes on global social justice issues (human rights, LGBT, health care and education access, immigration, refugees, Nazi Holocaust) for Guardian Liberty Voice.