Ukraine is a republic in Eastern Europe, bordering Russia to the east, Belarus to the north, Poland and Slovakia to the West, Hungary to the south and Romania and Moldova to the west and south. Jews have had a long history in Ukraine and today the Jewish population in Ukraine is approximately 43,000, making it the thirteenth largest Jewish community in the world.
Jewish settlements in Ukraine can be traced back to the 8th century. During the period of the Khazar kingdom, Jews lived on the banks of the River Dnieper and in the east and south of Ukraine and the Crimea. The Kingdom was considered the most influential of the medieval period because of its economic and diplomatic standing. The Khazars, an ancient nomadic Turkic people who reached the lower Volga region in the 6th century, were held in high esteem by the pope and other national leaders and played a major role in solving the region’s conflicts. The Khazar’s Empire, at its height between the 8th and 10th centuries, extended from the northern shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea as far west as Kyiv. Jewish refugees from the Byzantium, Persia, and Mesopotamia regions — fleeing from persecution by Christians throughout Europe, settled in the Kingdom because the Khazars allowed them to practice their own religion.
Over time, Jews integrated into the society and married Khazar inhabitants. At first, Khazars from royal families converted to Judaism. But other citizen from throughout the Kingdom soon followed suit, adopting Jewish religious practices including reading the Torah, observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher and switching to Hebrew as the official written system. At a time of religious intolerance, the Jews of Khazaria contributed to building a powerful nation while living in peace.
The Jews of Khazaria may have been among the founders of the Jewish community of Poland and of other communities in Eastern Europe.
In 965, however, the Khazar Empire suffered a blow when the Russians ransacked its capital. In the middle of the 13th century (1241), the Khazars were defeated by the Mongol invasion — an invasion that devastated all of Poland. To rebuild the country and defend its cities, Poland recruited immigrants from the west, mainly Germany, promising to help them settle in villages and towns. German Jews, many of whom were massacred by Christian crusaders in 1200 and devastated by the Black Death in 1300, immigrated to Poland. Jews in Poland shared a heritage with the new immigrants, but not a language. To communicate with one another, Jews in Poland created a common language. Yiddish. Made up of a combination of Middle German, Hebrew, Polish and German-Hebrew, Yiddish became the Ashkenazi national Jewish language.
Jewish communities were only established in the west, in Volhynia and Red Russia (eastern Galicia), in the 12th century. Of these the most ancient was apparently Vladimir Volynski. It seems that the Russia mentioned in 13th-century rabbinical literature refers to Red Russia. These communities absorbed the Jewish migration from Germany and Bohemia caused by the persecutions and massacres of the 14th (the Black Death) and 15th centuries.
Later, Jews from the western provinces of Poland moved to Ukraine because of the economic opportunities created by Poland’s expanding influence, which increased even more so in the 16th century with the consolidation of Poland-Lithuania over the region. By the end of the 15th century, between 20,000 and 30,000 Jews were living in 60 communities throughout Poland-Lithuania, most of them in cities. Ukraine became the center of Jewish life in Poland-Lithuania.
But life in Poland-Lithuania was not easy for the Jews. The church continued to pressure the nobles to punish and limit Jewish influence — putting the nobles on the spot because they recognized the economic contribution made by the Jews in society. When Jews settled in Ukraine, they became more prominent in the trade business, selling dye, cloth, horses, cattle, and estates. Jews were also making connections with other Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire, serving as liaisons between the two worlds. But what Jews were mostly known for — and detested for — was their role in the Polish government as collectors of customs, duties, and taxes on behalf of Polish landlords, bankers, and physicians.
The migration of Jews from the western provinces of Poland to Ukraine in the 16th century was mainly due to their economic role in the arenda business on a large or small scale. Hence, Ukraine became a region where Jews managed a considerable proportion of the agricultural economy, administering complexes consisting of several estates, single estates, or a sector of their economy. Jews also engaged in arenda there in the collection of customs duties and taxes, and played an important role in the export and import trade in the region.
Under the arenda system the Jewish lessee administered the estate in the name of the Polish landowner, and, if living in the town, he found his customers among the nobility, officials, the Catholic clergy, and the local army garrison. To the enslaved peasants and rebellious Cossacks, Ukrainians, and Greek-Orthodox the Jewish lessee appeared both as an infidel and an alien – an emissary of the Polish Catholic noblemen who sought to dominate them. The Ukrainian townsman was jealous of his urban rival, the unbelieving Jew, whose success was due to the assistance of the foreign and hated Polish regime
At the close of the 16th century there were about 45,000 Jews (out of the 100,000 Jews who were then presumably in the whole of Poland) living in the eastern regions of Poland which were inhabited by Ukrainians. Before the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648–49 their numbers had increased to at least 150,000.
As Jews prospered, anti-Semitism flourished. The country’s lower classes, including the Ukrainian Cossacks, saw Jews as working for the nation’s wealthy landowners and accused Jews of robbing the wealth of poor people to better enrich them. When Poland tried to exert more control over the Ukrainian Cossacks, the Cossacks revolted against their Polish landowners and the Jews. Life for the Jews then took a turn for the worst.
The Cossacks, meanwhile, wanted to free Ukraine from Polish domination — and sought to rule Ukraine. In 1648, the Cossacks, led by Bohdan Chmielnicki, began a series of campaigns by instigating the uprising of the Cossacks against the Jews. Chmielnicki told people that the Poles had sold them as slaves “into the hands of the accursed Jews.” Angered by this notion, the Cossacks massacred thousands of Jews during 1648-1649, in a war that would later be considered among the worst of that time.
Many Polish Jews were able to flee the country, but approximately half, or about 20,000, were brutally murdered. The massacre was devastating — both in numbers and effect. Cossack cruelty was so great that many Jews preferred to flee to captivity under Crimean Tartars, to be sold as slaves. The Deluge, as the catastrophe came to be known, brought devastation to both the Jews and the general population during the years of insurrection, invasions, and wars. Famine and epidemics swept through parts of the country.
The following excerpts describe eyewitness accounts of the atrocities that took place in the regions of Mogila, Zaslav, and Nemirov, between 1648 until 1651:
In the city of Mogila they slaughtered 800 nobles together with their wives and children as well as 700 Jews, also with wives and children. Some were cut into pieces, others were ordered to dig graves into which Jewish women and children were thrown and buried alive. Jews were given rifles and ordered to kill each other...They surround young women and, as they struggled to escape, cut their clothes from their bodies. Then they performed abominations on them until they died screaming....
They arrived... (disguised) as if they had come with the Poles... in order that he open the gates of the fortress... and they succeeded... and they massacred about 6,000 souls in the town... and they drowned several hundreds in the water and by all kinds of cruel torments. In the synagogue, before the Holy Ark, they slaughtered with butchers’ knives... after which they destroyed the synagogue and took out all the Torah books... they tore them up... and they laid them out... for men and animals to trample on... they also made sandals of them... and several other garments.
Some were skinned alive and their flesh was thrown to the dogs; some had their hands and limbs chopped off and their bodies thrown on the highway to be trampled by wagons and crushed by horses; some had wounds inflicted upon them and were then thrown on the street to die a slow death. They tore open women and then whipped them forcing them to crawl to their deaths.... others were buried alive. The enemy slaughtered infants in their mothers’ laps. They were sliced into pieces like fish.... The infants were hung on the breasts of their mothers. Some children were pierced with spears.
Ukraine did eventually become independent — but not for long. In 1651, Chmielnicki suffered defeat and was forced to accept a treaty that did not give him as much control over Ukraine as he had hoped. In 1654, Chmielnicki persuaded the Cossacks to transfer their allegiance to the Russian czars. Anti-Semitism worsened after Ukraine was annexed by Russia in 1653, as the Nationalist and Socialist Party of Ukraine took control over the region. The pogroms of 1881 broke out and spread through the provinces of Ukraine.
But even the Chmielnicki massacres didn’t halt Jewish migration to Ukraine. Jews continued to play a prominent role in the economic recovery of the country during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Cossack authorities of the part of Ukraine annexed by Russia beyond the Dnieper opposed the frequent expulsions of the Jews from there (1717, 1731, 1740, 1742, 1744), and argued in favor of their free admission to Ukraine (1728, 1734, 1764) stating that the Jews promoted the region’s trade. When Ukraine (with the exception of eastern Galicia) became part of the Pale of Settlement after the partition of Poland-Lithuania, the Jews continued to play a considerable and dynamic role in the economy of the region. In 1817, 30% of the factories in Ukraine were owned by Jews. They were particularly active in the production of alcoholic beverages.
The sufferings endured by the Jews in Ukraine also gave rise to spiritual and social trends for both Jews and Christians. The messianic agitation which followed the massacres of 1648–49 paved the way for the penetration of Shabbateanism, while at the time of the Haidamak persecutions and the revival of blood libels, the Frankist movement made its appearance, and Hasidism was inaugurated by Yisrael ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov) developed and spread rapidly through the country.
After the pogroms of the 1880s, Ukraine became the birthplace of the Hibbat Zion, the Bilu, and the Am Olam movements as well as the Dukhovno-bibleyskoye bratstvo (“Spiritual Biblical Brotherhood,” founded by Jacob Gordin and his circle) which sought to “bring back” the Jews to the religious purity of the Bible and thus draw them closer to Christianity.
In 1847, according to official sources, there were almost 600,000 Jews in the Ukrainian regions belonging to Russia (the provinces of southwestern Russia – Volhynia, Podolia, and Kyiv; of Little Russia – Chernigov, and Poltava; and of New Russia – Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), Kherson, and Taurida), though they actually numbered up to 900,000. According to the population census of 1897 (the first general census in Russia), there were 1,927,268 Jews in these regions, 9.2% of the total population of Ukraine.
In 1872, 90% of those occupied in distilling were Jews; 56.6% in sawmills, 48.8% in the tobacco industry, and 32.5% in the sugar industry. Only a limited number of Jews were occupied in heavy industry, where they were generally employed as white-collar workers. In 1897, the occupational structure of the Jewish population of Ukraine was 43.3% in commerce; 32.2% in crafts and industry; 2.9% in agriculture; 3.7% in communications; 7.3% in private services (including porterage and the like); 5.8% in public services (including the liberal professions); and 4.8% of no permanent occupation. Under the Soviet regime, by 1926, it had become 20.6% in arts and crafts; 20.6% in public services (administrative work); 15.3% workers (including 6.6% industrial workers); 13.3% in commerce; 9.2% in agriculture; 1.6% in liberal professions; 8.9% unemployed; 7.3% without profession; and 3.2% miscellaneous (pensioners, invalids, etc.). The proportion of Jews in various administrative branches was 40.6% in the economic administration and 31.9% in the medical sanitary administration. After large numbers of Jews had been absorbed under the Five-Year Plan in heavy industry (especially the metal and automobile industries), in the artisan cooperatives (in which there were over 70,000 Jewish members – 12.9% of the membership), and in agriculture (16,500 families in the cooperative farms), the proportion of Jews living in villages rose to 14% of the Jewish population.
In times of rebellion and war, this hatred and jealousy were vented in severe persecutions and horrifying massacres, such as the Chmielnicki massacres, and the persecutions of the Haidamaks in the 18th century, which were more limited in scope but even more terrible in their cruelty. These massacres, whose perpetrators were admired as national heroes, gave rise to a popular tradition of hatred toward the Jews in Ukraine; it was nurtured by the increase of the Jewish population in the country, by its economic position, and later by the propagation of the Russian language and culture by Jews – an act which the nationalist Ukrainian intellectuals (the Ukrainophiles) regarded as collaboration with the Muscovite Russian government in its campaign against their awakening as a separate nation. This tradition of hatred toward the Jews found its expression in both folk songs and literature (T. Shevchenko; N. Gogol), historiography (N. Kostomarov), and political thought (M. Dragomanov). The Nationalist and Socialist Party of Ukraine was also imbued with anti-Jewish feelings. In 1881-82, pogroms broke out and spread through the provinces of Ukraine.
After the abolition of the Pale of Settlement, with the October 1917 Revolution, the civil war, and the disorders which accompanied it, more than 300,000 Jews left Ukraine for other parts of the Soviet Union. But some Jews stayed. The period from March 1917 to August 1920 constitutes a special chapter in the history of the Jews of Ukraine. The Ukrainians established a National Council (Rada), which in January 1918 proclaimed the separation of Ukraine from Russia; this episode ended in August 1920, when the Red Army completed the conquest of Ukraine.
During this period the leaders of the Ukrainian nationalist movement attempted to reach an agreement with the Jews. They established relations with the leaders of Zionism in eastern Galicia and jointly waged a struggle against Polish aims in Ukraine. Jews were represented in the Rada (with 50 delegates), a secretariat for Jewish affairs was established (July 1917), and a law was passed on “personal national autonomy” for the national minorities, among which, the Jews were included.
In December 1918, the Jewish ministry passed a law providing for democratic elections to the administrative bodies of the communities, a Jewish National Council was formed, and the Provisional National Council of the Jews of Ukraine was convened in November 1918.
These institutions, however, were short-lived. In July 1918, the autonomy was abolished, and the Jewish ministry was dissolved. Approximately 100,000 Jews were murdered in pogroms from 1919 to 1920 – without the Ukrainian government taking any effective measures to assure the security of the Jewish population – proved that the whole of this project had been directed more at securing the assistance of the Jewish parties to achieve complete separation from Russia than at really developing a new positive attitude toward the Jews.
By 1926, 1,574,391 Jews lived in Ukraine. After the detachment of half of the province of Volhynia (the second half was then within the borders of Poland), half of the province of Taurida, and a small section of the province of Chernigov, several districts of the Don region had been incorporated into it. The Jews then constituted 5.43% of the total population of Ukraine.
Prior to the outbreak of the war, the census of 1939 reported 1,532,827 Jews in Ukraine (4.9% of the total).
During World War II, parts of the Ukrainian population collaborated with the Nazis in exterminating the Jews in occupied Ukraine.
In 1941, the Germans invaded Ukraine. In August, the Nazis ordered a group of Jews in the village of Talnoy to gather their belongings prior to being “taken to work,” but were instead taken to the nearby forest, shot, and buried. Two boys, aged six and seven, managed to climb out of the pile of bodies at night and were found by the wife of a local policeman who told them to run away. She also found a two-year-old girl in the pile, pulled her out, and sent her to live with a Ukrainian family. She survived the war.
The Nazis turned the nearby town of Uman into a ghetto. Before the German invasion, the Jewish population was 15,000; more than 10,000 were murdered within the following year. In September 1941, 1,000 Jews – doctors, lawyers, and teachers — were herded into a basement in Uman before the doors were locked and car exhaust was shoved through a hole in the wall. One person survived, a small boy who managed to breathe oxygen by pressing his nose against a crack in the wall and to escape without being noticed when the Germans opened the doors.
In April 1942, Uman’s Nazi commandant summoned local ghetto leader Haim Schwarz to tell him that the Jews had until April 22 to hand over 1,000 children, aged three to 10 for transportation to an orphanage. When Schwarz refused, the Nazis threatened to round them up without the Jews’ help. After two days of deliberations, Jewish leaders decided to “sacrifice the children in order to protect the rest of the community.”
On April 22, Ukrainian police and Nazi death camp prisoners came to take the children away. Those who could not be ripped from their mothers or fathers were taken together with their parents. Instead of going to an orphanage, the Jews were taken to the forest, shot, and buried in pits. Today, four city schools care for the many unmarked mass graves in the forest.
Today, Uman has a small, aging Jewish community. Jewish pilgrims come to the city to visit the tomb of the 18th-century Hasidic Rabbi Nahman of Breslov.
A Jewish community existed in Sataniv in southwest Ukraine for about 500 years before the Nazis captured it in 1941. On May 15, 1942, German troops and Ukrainian military police locked 286 Jews in two cellars and suffocated them.
Rabbi Alexander Feingold waged an unsuccessful six-year legal battle with the property owner to search the cellars before reaching a settlement that led to the discovery of the first bodies in 2019 and the rest in July 2020. They were to be buried in a mass grave in the town’s Jewish cemetery and a memorial park created near the site of the massacre.
Two Holocaust research centers, in Dnepropetrovsk and Kyiv, inform and train teachers about the war. Some, but not all schools in Ukraine teach about the Holocaust — but they are only required to devote 55 minutes to the subject.
After World War II, under Nikita Khrushchev’s rule over Ukraine, Ukrainian Jews who fled to Soviet Asia during the occupation slowly returned to reclaim their homes, possessions, and jobs. The Ukrainians who remained in the communities were hostile to the returning Jews. The government, once again, refused to interfere in the conflicts between the Russians and the Jews. As a result, anti-Semitic sentiments surfaced everywhere — in the nation’s literature and art, and through political propaganda.
This anti-Jewish atmosphere prevailed it Ukraine during the postwar period. Only a few synagogues were allowed to remain open, but even these were under close watch by the secret police.
According to the census of 1959, which also included the Jews of the regions which had passed to Russia after World War II (eastern Galicia, northern Bukovina, Subcarpathian Ruthenia), there were 840,319 Jews in Ukraine (2% of the total). According to this census, which was generally regarded as underestimating their numbers, Jews were concentrated in the towns of Kyiv (153,500), Odessa (106,700), Kharkov (84,000), Dnepropetrovsk (52,800), Chernovtsy (Czernowitz; 36,500), Lvov (24,700), and Donetsk (21,000). About 80% of the Jews of Ukraine declared their mother tongue as Russian, about 17% (142,240) as Yiddish, and only about 3% as Ukrainian.
In the 1960s, Ukrainian intellectuals tried to understand the Jewish plight. Some Ukrainians tried to raise awareness about the atrocities that Jews experienced during the Holocaust. Though defending the Ukrainian character of their republic against “russification,” some Ukrainian intellectuals went out of their way to emphasize their solidarity with Jewish demands for the revival of Jewish culture and education.
Ukraine declared its independence in August 1991. Most of the Jews voted for independence. Several times, the leaders of the Ukrainian national movement expressed a positive attitude toward the Jews of Ukraine and the desire to work with them. To further that goal, an international conference was held in Kyiv in 1991 on Ukrainian-Jewish relations. Ukrainian president Kravchuk commemorated the 50th anniversary of the mass murder of Kyiv’s Jews at Baby Yar and acknowledged the Ukrainian people’s share of guilt for the destruction of the Jews. He also showed support for the denunciation of the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism, a belief some of his citizens still held true.
In 1989, a Soviet census counted 487,000 Jews living in Ukraine. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, 80% of the Jewish community has emigrated. Efforts have been made to revive the Jewish community in Ukraine, which numbered 80,000 in 2005 (Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition, Volume 20). Today, the community has formed 40 religious societies and built 24 synagogues. Jewish organizations created within Ukraine have been raising funds for relief within the Jewish community, promoting Jewish participation in the political system, furthering Jewish education, and building memorials to commemorate those who perished during the Holocaust.
Jewish life is once again, on the upswing. Since 1993, the Jewish population has expanded its organizational numbers to roughly 250 organizations, located in more than 80 cities. Some of these organizations include the Ukrainian Jewish Congress, the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, the Jewish Council of Ukraine, and the Chabad Lubavitch movement. The state now recognizes Jewish cultural and religious institutions, including 14 Jewish day schools, 10 Yeshivot, and 70 Hebrew and Sunday schools. An American rabbi, Yankel Blau, was named chief rabbi of Ukraine. To partially atone for past transgressions, the Ukrainian government has returned 20 synagogues to the Jewish community and has passed legislation to return all confiscated religious memorabilia over to Jewish leaders.
The Jewish community in Kyiv, though diminished since the 1990s, has seen an upswing since it became the seat of the Ukrainian chief rabbinate and the opening of a Jewish day school. The city now has three new congregations, three Jewish newspapers, and two professional Jewish theater companies. The International Solomon University, the first Jewish university in Ukraine, opened in Kyiv in the fall of 1993. Hebrew studies departments have been established at the Universities of Kyiv and Odessa. Large and active Jewish communities are thriving in Kharkiv, Odessa, and Dnepropetrovsk.
In late 2004, a new Jewish community complex opened in Zaparozhye with a theater, gym, kosher kitchen, library, Jewish school, kindergarten, orphanage, and welfare center to serve the estimated 15,000-20,000 Jews in the city.
In April 2005, the historic Egie Kapai synagogue was rededicated as a Reform temple in the town of Evpatoria in the Crimean Peninsula. decades after it was closed by the Communist Party. The synagogue was dedicated by Rabbi Alex Dukhovny, leader of the Reform movement in Ukraine, in the presence of local politicians. The synagogue was founded in 1912 and was returned to the Jewish community in 1999. It was reconstructed using funds donated by the Leo Baeck B’nai Brith Lodge in London, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and local sponsors. Some 100 of the city’s 800 Jews are affiliated with the local Reform congregation.
Despite this growth, however, Ukrainian Jewish communities still face major challenges: extreme food shortages for the elderly, middle-aged unemployment, and the encroaching threat posed by proselytizing Messianic Jewish groups.
Fearing Russian aggression and fleeing from the Ukrainian revolution that decimated the Eastern portion of the country in 2014, many Ukrainian Jews made the move to Israel. In 2014, more than 5,000 Ukrainian Jewish individuals immigrated to Israel, mostly from the Donbas region which had been hit especially hard by violence and uncertainty during the revolution. This wave of immigration represents a one thousand percent increase over the same period during the previous year. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) paid for one flight filled with 226 Ukrainian Jews to Israel in 2014. The organization plans to continue this program and hopes to send one plane load of Ukrainian Jews to Israel every month during 2015.
In an interview with the Executive Director of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, Mark Levin in the January 2015 edition of Moment Magazine, Levin paints a hopeful picture for Ukraine’s Jewish citizens. Levin states that the Jews living in Ukraine are “hoping that this time around the political reformers don’s allow infighting to destroy any chance to create a true economic and political renaissance.” When asked about problems with anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Levin happily replied that “today is much better than it has been.” He supports this claim by pointing out that there are no far right-wing parties in the current government, and that Jews and non-Jews have been fighting alongside each other during the revolution. Levin said confidently that the Ukrainian Jewish leaders are happy with the government and there have been some positive developments in Ukrainian attitudes towards Jewish individuals. The Jewish population in Ukraine has been more affected by the war economically than anything else, and the Jews who have been directly involved in the civil war have been personally affected by the loss of their jobs and homes and robbed of their normal lives. During the interview, Levin stated that “if they had the means or wherewithal to leave, they have.” Levin estimates that there are only a few thousand Jews left in Ukraine following the civil unrest of the revolution, mostly the elderly. During the first four months of 2015, 6,499 Jewish people made Aliyah from all over the world. More than a third of these individuals (1,971) came from Ukraine. These numbers represent a 215% increase in immigration from Ukraine to Israel over the same period during the previous year, during which only 625 Ukrainian Jews made the move to Israel. In total, 6,306 Jewish people left Ukraine to resettle in Israel in 2015, mostly arriving from the country’s eastern portion. Approximately 200,000 Ukrainian Jews are eligible to make Aliyah to Israel.
Ukrainian politician Vlodymir Groysman became the first Jew to ever be appointed Ukrainian Prime Minister, in April 2016. Groysman, an observant Jew, was named to the position by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. In addition to being the first Jewish person to hold the position, at age 38 Groysman also became the youngest Ukrainian Prime Minister of all time. Prior to being appointed Prime Minister, Groysman served as Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, and Mayor of the Central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia.
On the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, in which Nazi Einsatzgruppen mobile squads killed at least 34,000 Jews in September 1941, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko announced the creation of a memorial to commemorate the victims.
On October 6, 2021, the presidents of Ukraine, Israel, and Germany inaugurated a memorial center for the victims at the site of the massacre and attended the unveiling of the “Crystal Crying Wall” memorial The names of 159 of the Nazi soldiers who participated in the killings were also released.
The center, which is still under construction, will be dedicated to the stories of Eastern European Jews who were killed and buried in mass graves during the Holocaust.
In a stunning turn of events, a Jewish comedian, best known for a satirical program in which he played the president of the country, was elected to be the real president of Ukraine in April 2019. Volodymyr Zelensky won a landslide victory over the incumbent Petro Poroshenko. In doing so Ukraine became the first country other than Israel to have a president and prime minister (Volodymyr Groysman) who are Jewish.
On February 21, 2022, Russia officially recognized the two self-proclaimed states in the Donbas and sent troops to the territories. Three days later, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Jewish community was immediately at risk and thousands began to seek ways to leave the country. Jewish organizations worldwide transferred tens of millions of dollars in emergency assistance to Jewish communities in Ukraine. These include the Jewish Federations of North America, which launched a $20 million emergency campaign to provide humanitarian assistance, the Orthodox Union, which established the “Ukraine Crisis Fund,” and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews which is operating a $1 million emergency program to assist the Jewish community in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, anti-Semitic sentiments were associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. During the 1990s, Ukraine was still experiencing anti-Semitism. Well-known groups, such as the organization of the Ukrainian Idealist, based in Lvov, the State Independence of Ukraine party, and the Ukrainian National Assembly, still had strong paramilitary backing, and were active in anti-Semitic rallies, and distributing anti-Semitic publications.
Although Jews have advanced in governmental positions, they still face much hatred because of their religion and beliefs. Many Ukrainian citizens still distrust Ukrainian Jews and believe that the Jews’ primary loyalty is to the Jewish people and not to the Ukrainian nation. For example, Yakov Penek reported during the June 1995 Conference on Soviet Jewry in South Florida:
In the fall of 1993, Mayor Gurwitz’s former political challenger Kostishev showed a movie on the local television in which Gurwitz is portrayed as an agent of the world’s Zionism who wishes to sell Odessa, his native town, to the world’s capitalism.
A survey conducted in 1990 revealed that 7% of the nation still believes that Jews are actively seeking to take over the political and social circles of Ukraine. In addition, the survey points out that 10% also believe that the Jews are responsible for the misery and economic devastation still plaguing the region.
In October 2013, Lviv’s Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal investigation of two police detectives believed to have beaten and humiliated a Jewish man while trying to extort money from him. The man, 29-year-old businessman Dmitry Flekman, was arrested by the officers and held in an interrogation room for nine hours. The officers purportedly urinated on Flekman and fractured his tailbone with blows to the back They also forced him to sit on the floor, explaining the chair “was not for stinking Jews,” and one of them said, “he’d do what Hitler did.”
The same city allowed nationalists parading in Nazi SS uniforms to celebrate the anniversary of the 14th Galician division of the Waffen SS.
In October 2021, Ukraine passed legislation “On Preventing and Countering Antisemitism in Ukraine.” In February 2022, the Parliament amended the law criminalizing anti-Semitism. Organized groups committing acts of anti-Semitism are punishable with prison sentences of up to eight years. When committed by an individual, the punishment is a fine or a prison sentence of up to five years. Public officials can be fined or imprisoned for up to five years and banned from holding certain offices for up to three years.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko made his third visit to Israel to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, on January 21, 2019, the two countries signed a bilateral free-trade agreement expected to increase annual trade between the two countries from $800,000 to $1 billion a year.
Netanyahu said Poroshenko’s visit was indicative of the “deep historical and cultural roots” between Israel and Ukraine. “Ukrainian Jews make up a significant portion of the population of Israel,” he said. “And Ukraine is home to a large Jewish community. I think it’s the fourth-largest Jewish community in Europe. I appreciate your continued efforts to eliminate hate speech and combat anti-Semitism in Ukraine.”
During Poroshenko’s visit, the leaders also discussed additional opportunities for increasing cooperation in fields such as technology, health, aerospace, and science.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, President Zelensky asked Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to reach out to Putin on his behalf. Bennett agreed to mediate an end to the war and called Russian President Vladimir Putin, but he was apparently not interested in discussing an end to the fighting. Bennett, who turned down Zelensky’s request for military aid, reassured Putin that Israel would only send humanitarian supplies to Ukraine. According to the Times of Israel, Israel stopped the U.S. from transferring Israel’s Iron Dome defense system to Ukraine the year before to avoid disrupting Israel’s ties with Russia.
Israel opposed the Russian invasion but was in a difficult position because it has improved ties with Russia in recent years and depends on Putin to allow the IDF to operate in Syria against terrorists and Iranian targets. To Israel’s relief, the Russian Embassy announced that security coordination over Syria between Israel and Russia would continue.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called the Russian attack on Ukraine “a grave violation of the international order,” but Bennett was more circumspect. He said, “I want to express hope that this conflict will be resolved before the war develops further and before there are humanitarian repercussions that are far worse than we can imagine. We pray for the wellbeing of the citizens of Ukraine, and we hope that further bloodshed will be avoided.”
Reflecting its predicament, Israel turned down a U.S. request to cosponsor a statement condemning Russia at the UN but did support the American text at the General Assembly. Meanwhile, Israelis took to the streets to demonstrate against the Russian invasion and in support of Ukraine.
Israel was also working to evacuate Israelis in Ukraine. Some 5,000 were thought to be in the country. Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman called on the Ukrainian Jews to immigrate to Israel. Meanwhile, along with helping Israeli citizens, Israeli diplomats also were assisting Lebanese, Syrian, and Egyptians to evacuate from Ukraine, transporting them alongside Israelis.
Israel agreed to send 100 tons of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, including water purification kits, medical equipment, tents, blankets, and sleeping bags. The government also planned to transfer more than $3 million for aid to Ukraine.
Zelensky asked Israel to mediate and, on March 5, 2022, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the war in Ukraine. Israeli officials rarely travel on Shabbat and the fact that Bennett, an Orthodox Jew, would make such a trip underscored its urgency. He was accompanied by his Ukrainian-born housing minister, Zeev Elkin. The meeting was coordinated with the United States, Germany, and France. Bennett went from Moscow to Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and phoned Zelensky and French President Macron. He spoke on the phone on the 7th with Putin and Zelensky.
A team of psychologists and social workers arrived on March 6, 2022, sent by the World Zionist Organization to aid Jewish refugees. A four-member team from the Hadassah Medical Organization will arrive in Lublin, Poland, on Monday to provide expertise in how to triage trauma patients. At the end of February, United Hatzalah, the Israeli emergency medical service, sent a team of medical and humanitarian aid workers to Moldova’s Ukrainian border.
Medical professionals from leading Israeli hospitals and clinics set up a field hospital on March 22, 2022, near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. The field hospital will provide urgent care and trauma treatment to injured Ukrainians as well as those who cannot leave the country, according to Dr. Dorit Nitzan. She is also leading an eight-person Israeli team of doctors and nurses from Natan, an Israeli disaster relief organization, that began providing care to refugees in the Polish border town of Medyka.
About 15,000 Ukrainians have fled to Israel, including a group of orphans, 84 of whom were Jewish children from an orphanage in Zhytomyr. As many as 15,000 refugees could arrive before the end of March. Jewish refugees have been offered citizenship.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem is offering Ukrainian citizens currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree admission to HU’s Rothberg International School free of charge.
Israel was criticized by Ukraine and others for not providing weapons to fight the Russians. In May 2022, Israel delivered 2,000 helmets and 500 protective vests for emergency and civilian organizations in Ukraine.
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Sources: Cnaan Lipshiz, “In Ukraine, a Jewish wunderkind becomes prime minister,” JTA, (April 13, 2016).