Ukraine’s problem with its Jews is nothing new. My great-grandfather, sick of the endless pogroms and unflagging hatred of the local populace, was acutely aware of this when he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1909.
But it is hard as a Jew not to feel involved when reports emerge that worshipers leaving a Passover service at a synagogue in Donetsk were handed leaflets calling for all Jews over 16 years of age to register at the pro-Russian local municipality or face deportation and loss of businesses and property. Add to that last week’s fire-bombing of a local synagogue in Nikolayev, a Black Sea port city of approximately 500,000 located in southeastern Ukraine about 110 kilometers from Odessa, as well as a similar incident this past February at the Giymat Rosa Synagogue in Zaporizhia, located 400 km. southeast of Kiev, in eastern Ukraine, and it is not difficult to see why worldwide Jewry is becoming alarmed.
But unlike other anti-Semitic incidents around the world, the ones in Ukraine seem mired in a fog of conflicting allegations. Accusations fly between pro-Russian champions and Ukrainian nationalists, each claiming innocence and blaming the other for anti-Semitic acts as a way of harming their public relations image in the West.
It is not open to debate that the Ukrainian nationalists have a long history of anti-Semitism stretching back for hundreds of years. Their latest manifestation, the Svoboda party and Pravy Sektor, are openly calling all their opponents “Zhids.”
A cursory Google search yields pictures of rallies with bare-chested skinheads with swastika tattoos holding flags with neo-Nazi symbols. It is also claimed that they’ve been busily printing and distributing hot-off-the-press versions of Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Nevertheless, local rabbis have been loath to take sides. Rabbi Reuven Stamov of the Masoret community in Kiev has been quoted as saying: “We have plenty of unpleasant things from the Svoboda members… but so far there has been a distance between words and actions… the authorities haven’t done enough to find out who was behind the latest attack… it isn’t clear where the attackers came from, it could have been someone from the former regime who wanted to smear the opposition.”
Bizarrely, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, Kiev’s chief rabbi, lashed out at pro-Putin Rabbi Berel Lazar, Chabad’s chief rabbi of Russia, for even suggesting the Jews of Ukraine needed support. “Plenty of anti-Semites in Russia can use the help of Berel Lazar before he worries about anti-Semitism in Ukraine,” said Bleich.
Haaretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer wrote on February 25 that perhaps the true threat to the Jews of Ukraine is that the anti-Semitic card is being played by both sides “with the Jews in the middle.”
Ukraine’s problem with its Jews is nothing new. My great-grandfather, sick of the endless pogroms and unflagging hatred of the local populace, was acutely aware of this when he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1909. Answering an advertisement from a coal-mining company offering to pay the transportation of Ukrainian miners willing to relocate to Schuylkill, Pennsylvania, my great-grandfather and grandfather decided that being tailors was close enough, and took them up on the offer. I seriously doubt whether either Joseph Terlinsky (my great-grandfather) or his son David (my grandfather) ever dug a pailful of coal from those abundant black hills, as they soon relocated to Brooklyn and began making pants once more.
My pregnant grandmother, left behind in Ukraine for what became an untenable length of time, joined the rest of the family with my, by then, three-year-old father when – family legend has it – she was finally able to muster the fare on her own.
This was in 1911. Sitting on my desk is a photo that this intrepid woman had printed on a metal oval showing herself, her infant son (my dad) and daughter. I was told that she mailed it to her husband as a not so- subtle reminder of those left behind. Often, I stare at those pictures, blessing the initiative of my Ukrainian ancestors in leaving that dark place behind and allowing my brothers and me to enjoy the safety and freedom of an American childhood.
Had they stayed, they would no doubt have shared the fate of those million Ukrainian Jews slaughtered by the Nazis and their enthusiastic Ukrainian helpers during the Holocaust, more than 30,000 of them in the infamous pit of Babi Yar in Kiev. Indeed, someone recently sent my Facebook account a little-publicized group of rare photos showing Jewish women being forcibly stripped naked in the streets of a Ukrainian town and then beaten not by German soldiers or local militia or police, but just average townspeople. The raw, visceral hatred in the faces of those men is something that is hard to forget.
So what is going on in Ukraine today, and why should we, as Jews, care? In a vastly simplified nutshell, the most recent struggle began when pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by mobs of angry citizens.
Those who were tuning in will remember the lavish palace where Yanukovych held court amidst his impoverished countrymen, displayed on Ukrainian television at his ouster. If you listened to them, they were fighting corruption, the emptying of their treasury, by a stooge of Moscow.
Why then, did a referendum allowing the people of Crimea to choose annexation to Moscow over continuing to be part of Ukraine result in an 83 percent turnout, and a 95.5% landslide choosing annexation to Russia? Maybe because the majority of those in Crimea are ethnic Russians? There are those that claim that the vote was a sham. Writing in the New Republic, Oliver Bullough contends that the vote gave only two options: Do you want to join Russia? Or do you want to make Crimea independent, by returning to the (abortive) constitution of 1992? “Since there is no sign that anyone in Crimea wants to be independent, that is actually one option, with no way of voting against it,” he wrote.
The West, in general, seems to support not so much Ukrainian democracy and independence – after all, the ouster of its elected president was singularly undemocratic – as much as the fanciful idea of a Ukrainian spring which sees Ukrainians embracing the EU and the West with fervor.
In line with that, US President Barack Obama stated to reporters at the White House before the vote: “The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law.” Admittedly, it is hard to see the suffering of people undergoing what to all intents and purposes seems like a brutal repression which includes the invasion of Russian troops that have left dozens dead and wounded. Unfortunately, that seems to be the pattern of “Springs” all over the world.
In all this, the Jews are really just a side issue. Nevertheless, there have been calls for Israel to send in troops to protect local Jewish communities. Rabbi Menachem Margolin, CEO of the European Jewish Association turned to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon with an emergency call for Israel to send guards to protect Jewish communities in Ukraine. That was back in February. Another such call is sure to come if the situation worsens.
Wisely, so far Israel has kept out.
“Ukraine is not a world power but it’s a large country which will either be a member of the European Union in the future or Russia’s main ally,” former Israeli ambassador to Ukraine, Zvi Magen, told Haaretz. “So either way, it’s good we have a positive relationship with them.”
As for those who worry for the 200,000 Jews caught in the middle, there is a way open to them, the same way that was open to my grandparents and father. It is my hope that they take it before it’s too late. We in Israel are looking forward to welcoming them.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post on 25 April 2024.