Asher Cherkassky, a Ukrainian Orthodox Jew who joined a pro-Ukrainian volunteer battalion, Dnipro, November 2015. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images.
What Has Happened to the Jews of Ukraine
07.01.2020, Communities of Eurasia
In early 2014, political disruption in Ukraine devolved into unrest, a Russian invasion of the country, and a war that is still not over. Yet today, almost six years later—and despite a phone call between the U.S. president and his Ukrainian counterpart that dominated the American news cycle for weeks—even those who closely follow international events remain, for the most part, in the dark about Ukraine’s overall present situation, its history—or, in particular, the condition of its Jews.
That’s reason enough to appreciate Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews, a recent book by the journalist Sam Sokol. Based largely on the author’s prolific firsthand reporting for the Jerusalem Post between late 2013 and 2016, the book is so far the only one on the “Donbass War” to tackle the subject encapsulated in its subtitle: “Anti-Semitism, Propaganda, and the Displacement of Ukrainian Jewry.”
When Sokol’s story begins in 2013, Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian president and Putin ally, had pulled back from signing an association agreement with the European Union. Protesters came out en masse to Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”), and things soon spiraled out of control. By late February 2014, military-police actions to quell the demonstrations had resulted in more than 100 dead. Within a week, Yanukovych was gone; the protesters seemed to have won. But Russia was not about to relinquish its grip on a territory that had been in its sphere of influence since the 17th century.
From the moment the protests began, Ukraine’s Jews—numbering anywhere between 70,000 and 350,000 (the gap reflecting the difference of opinion between Israeli demographers and local Jewish leaders)—feared how the unrest would affect them. Even by European standards, their country had an ugly history of anti-Semitism, and its national movement had for centuries been intertwined with a special antipathy toward Jews.
These concerns seemed justified when, in the midst of the Maidan protests, anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalist symbols appeared, speakers called on Ukrainians “not to give in to the Jews,” and a crowd of 15,000 marched to celebrate the birthday of Stepan Bandera, who during World War II had led a paramilitary group that, siding with the Nazis against Soviets and Poles, assisted in the extermination of Jews. Later on, two synagogues would be firebombed and a handful of visibly Orthodox Jews near a Kiev synagogue would be brutally assaulted.
Moscow seized on the resurgence of this ugly brand of nationalism as a pretext for intervention. Following what would soon become a familiar script, anti-Semitic incidents—some real, some unfounded rumors or exaggerations—became fodder for Russian propagandists to portray the Maidan movement not as an attempt to bring democracy and free Ukraine from foreign domination but as a neo-Nazi takeover. In early March 2014, as unmarked Russian troops seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, Vladimir Putin assured reporters that his “biggest concern” was “the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces, going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.” Later that month, Russia annexed Crimea, and pro-Russian protesters and provocateurs—many of them Kremlin agents—began occupying government buildings throughout eastern Ukraine, where Russian speakers predominated and pro-Russian sentiment had historically been the highest.
Soon a low-intensity shooting war erupted. Ukrainian forces quickly quashed the uprising in Kharkov, the country’s second-largest city, but in the process the southeastern port city of Mariupol, along with its Jews, was bounced between sides, suffering significant damage before ending up on the Ukrainian side of the new de-facto border.
Even less fortunate were the Jewish communities of Donetsk and Lugansk in the industrial Donbass region of southeastern Ukraine. In April 2014, pro-Russian separatists proclaimed a Donetsk People’s Republic and a Lugansk People’s Republic, and within weeks local Jews found themselves in a twilight zone, governed by neither Ukraine nor Russia.
That summer, full-scale war began. Although it has since subsided, it has never really ended.
This isthe “hybrid war” invoked in Sokol’s title. Pioneered by the Kremlin, this new kind of combat follows an entirely different pattern from traditional warfare. In Ukraine, instead of declaring war, Moscow claimed from the start that “separatists” were bravely trying to break away from the Kiev regime and that it had a moral obligation to protect them. In fact, evidence suggests that the so-called separatists have mainly been Russian proxies fighting to attach their lands to Russia, and that the supposed civil war has really been a foreign invasion in the course of which Russia has nibbled away at Ukrainian territory.
On the second night of Passover in 2014, in a scene eerily reminiscent of the region’s 20th-century history, three masked men walked into Donetsk’s synagogue, Beth Menachem, and began handing out flyers in the name of the Donetsk People’s Republic. The documents stated that all citizens of Jewish descent over sixteen were required to register at the office of the Commissioner for Nationalities. The flyers, which made international news, proved to be a hoax, but they left the Jews of Donetsk shaken.
Fighting intensified just a week later, as both sides began using heavy artillery. That summer, the vast majority of Donetsk’s 11,000 Jews and Lugansk’s 5,000 Jews fled their homes, leaving everything behind. In the war’s early days, they assumed they could soon return. Instead, war and displacement became the new normal. Other Jewish communities took in refugees to the extent they could, but many found themselves in refugee camps and still others made plans to leave for Israel.
In June, after a Ukrainian aerial assault slammed separatist headquarters not far from the Lugansk synagogue, its rabbi Sholom Gopin, his wife Chana, and their children boarded a midnight train out of the city. Pinchas Vishedski, the rabbi of Donetsk and the most visible and active Jewish leader in the Donbass—who in the course of two decades had built a thriving Jewish community complete with a synagogue, community center, Jewish school, and Ukraine’s leading kosher-supervision service—sent his family away at the beginning of the summer, encouraging his flock to leave as well.
But Vishedski himself—like all of eastern Ukraine’s rabbis and the vast majority of the country’s Jewish spiritual leaders, he is affiliated with Chabad—vowed to stay on. “I can’t leave because I have a responsibility to the people who remain here,” he told Sokol. By August, feeling he could no longer function or assist his community under constant bombardment, he, too, had left and headed to Kiev. There, he and his wife established a Jewish community center for refugees from the east, while continuing to this day to support the remaining Jews living in separatist Donetsk.
All of this stood in stark contrast to Moscow’s continued insistence that Ukraine was being overrun by fascist anti-Semites. To the contrary, in Ukraine’s October 2014 elections the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party collapsed, dropping from 37 seats in parliament to a tenuous six. Moreover, it has been plausibly alleged that some supposed instances of anti-Semitism may have been perpetrated by Russian agents masquerading as supporters of independent Ukraine.
But then, to complexify the picture, came Ukraine’s own counter-propaganda, as the country’s leaders sought to paint any anti-Semitic acts as Russian provocations when clearly some were not. And history, too, became a battleground. On January 27, 2015, at an event held at Auschwitz in Poland to mark the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko implicitly compared Putin with Hitler, declaring that he would not “mention clear and obvious parallels between events in Europe in the 1930s and present developments.” Speaking in Moscow that same day, Putin pushed back, accusing Ukraine of “unacceptable and immoral” attempts to rewrite history in order to “justify” past “indirect, silent collusion with the Nazis.”
Putin’s rhetoric, Sokol writes in a key passage of his book, while used in the service of propaganda intended to delegitimize Ukraine, . . . contained a grain of truth, one that would soon become apparent as Ukraine’s new rulers pushed through a legislative agenda aimed precisely at obfuscating their country’s wartime record.
Indeed, Ukraine’s officials went beyond obfuscation to glorify anti-Semitic figures of the past. After Yanukovych’s ouster, for instance, the Ukrainian parliament decreed that thousands of places had to shed their Soviet-era names. Some municipalities complied with a touch of humor—like the village of Kalyny (known in Yiddish as Kalin), which replaced Lenin Street with John Lennon Street—but elsewhere the renaming process became an opportunity to commemorate Nazi collaborators like Bandera.
Sokol handlesthe political complexities of his subject matter well, presenting the reader with a subtler and more accurate picture than can be found elsewhere. While he is unequivocal that Russia’s aggression set the ball rolling, he is equally emphatic that, although anti-Semitism had not been an animating factor in the Maidan movement, the risk of its resurgence in Ukraine cannot be ignored.
This sober view contrasts with the approach adopted by many Western activists, journalists, and academics, who early on began to see the unfolding events through a narrow prism in which Russia was bad and the new Ukraine good—and who thus ignored genuine incidents of Ukrainian anti-Semitism. In the face of realities both past and present, the temptation to use the Jews as a symbol of the new, democratic, European Ukraine was evidently, for some, hard to resist.
Sokol’s book is not without its own flaws; in particular, he does not always fully apprehend the internal dynamics of the local Jewish communities he describes, and his book would have benefited from additional editing to remove needless errors and tighten the narrative; an index would also have helped.
But these are minor quibbles. In the end, Sokol has done something quite singular: giving voice to the many thousands of Ukrainian Jews caught in a conflict not of their making. In addition, unlike all too many observers, he is able to look beyond anti-Semitism and geopolitics to report on the day-to-day problems faced by those Jews caught in the war zone, and those who have fled it.
Unfortunately, as Sokol alludes to and as I can confirm, the major Jewish organizations of the U.S. and Western Europe, for their part, have been slow to focus on these everyday problems. Beginning in January 2014, the political crisis wracked Ukraine’s economy, sending its currency into a free fall from which it has never recovered, and dealing a severe blow to formerly self-sustaining Jewish communities. Even in Dnipro (until 2016 Dnepropetrovsk), whose Jews enjoyed a highly organized and well-funded set of communal institutions, the community’s director general told Sokol that 2014 saw local contributions decline by 35 percent, with inflation devaluing whatever was received.
In my own visits to Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 to report on the effects of the crisis on the Jews, leading Jewish figures throughout the country similarly confided that covering their own budgets, not to mention assisting Jewish refugees from the east, had become their paramount struggle. Indeed, there was a distinct feeling that their cries for help were falling on deaf ears.
Even today, Rabbi Vishedski, whose community bore the brunt of the war and who justly emerges as a heroic figure in Sokol’s story, has informed me that only two organizations have supplied him with the much-needed funds to provide his flock with transportation, food packages, and assistance in resettlement as they flee the city. The two are the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States (i.e., of the former Soviet Union). The latter, a Moscow-based umbrella group, is led by Russia’s chief rabbi Berel Lazar—a Chabad Ḥasid who, ironically, has received much criticism for his relationship with Putin.
By contrast, most mainstream Jewish organizations have seen anti-Semitism, or Russian propaganda about anti-Semitism, as the paramount threat to Ukrainian Jews—in response to which they have met with elected officials, published op-eds, and organized special missions to safe cities in Ukraine. Meanwhile, in actuality, as Vishedski put it to me, “The main problem facing the Jews of Ukraine is that we need help.” When in September of 2015 I made this point with a prominent American Jewish figure actively engaged with Ukraine, my interlocutor insisted that where American Jewish organizations could best contribute was in high-level discussions with government officials, not in assisting the resettlement of refugees, not in providing funds for those who have lost their livelihoods, and not in helping the Jewish communities whose infrastructure was obliterated by the war.
The fact is that no Western philanthropy or NGO, Jewish or not, can force Russia to alter its actions. But many could still raise and channel funds to help the Jews stuck in the middle.
News from Ukraineis now back on the front page, and not just in relation to the Trump impeachment. The war festers on with no end in sight, and the chances that Russia will ever pull out of Crimea—which the Kremlin has had its eye on from the first days of Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s—are zero. On the plus side, the landslide victory by Volodomyr Zelensky in last April’s presidential election—a campaign season notable for how little Zelensky’s own open Jewishness came up—illustrates once again that the new Ukraine, though not without its anti-Semites, is by no means overrun by neo-Nazis.
Yet the plight of Ukraine’s Jews remains. It’s true that significant numbers have left the country altogether, some to Russia or Germany, many more to Israel—Sokol reports that 30,000 Ukrainians of Jewish descent have undertaken aliyah—but emigrating is not an option for everyone. Although the communities directly in the war zone have already been destroyed, the rest are in dire need of aid to maintain their orphanages, synagogues, schools, and social services.
Jews around the world can do much to help. The frozen conflict in the east is beyond their control, but assisting living, breathing Ukrainian Jews is not.
By Dovid Margolin