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August 13, 2014 8:01 pm

What’s Next for Ukrainian Jews?

avatar by Ben Frank

A vandal firebombing the Noklayev Synagogue, in Ukraine, on April 19, 2014, as recorded by closed-circuit security cameras. Photo: Screenshot / Yisroel Gotlieb.

A vandal firebombing the Noklayev Synagogue, in Ukraine, on April 19, 2014, as recorded by closed-circuit security cameras. Photo: Screenshot / Yisroel Gotlieb.

Déjà vu, a horrible dream: Here we are in the 21st Century, and a civil war in Ukraine; fears that Russia will cross the border again after it already has taken Crimea; U.S. and EU economic sanctions leveled at Moscow; the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner; and the Ukrainian army pounding the last pro-Russian insurgents in Donetsk and Luhansk. We are now confronting the most serious “standoff” between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

So what’s next for Ukraine and its Jewish community?

Clearly the crisis in Ukraine is not a Jewish issue. Indeed elements on each side of the Russian-Ukrainian border have tried to use the “anti-Semitic” card against the other.

And so, Ukrainian Jews find themselves on both sides of the political fray, although the official position of the Ukrainian Jewish community and Israel is to remain neutral and not get involved.

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I worry about the Jews living in the Ukraine – and about more innocents there who could be killed. A few weeks ago, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) reported three Jews were killed in Luhansk in the fighting raging in Eastern Ukraine. The region has been unstable since April, when rebels in the east declared independence from Kiev. More than 1,500 people are believed to have been killed since fighting began, according to the BBC.

More than 250 Jewish refugees from Lugansk, and surrounding towns in Eastern Ukraine are slowly recuperating at the first Jewish refugee camp established in Ukraine, according to Chabad. The site was secured on campgrounds owned by Chabad-Lubavitch of Zhitomer and is being organized by Rabbi Sholom Gopin, Lugansk’s rabbi and the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Lugansk. Many more probably fled from the war zone.

But I disagree with those who say, “a plague on both your houses.” We cannot forsake Jews or tell them “to get out,” just because they have decided to remain in Ukraine, which most consider their home. Instead of coldly wringing our hands, we should follow events closely and be ready to support and provide them with assistance. This is not the first, nor unfortunately the last, flash point of danger for a Diaspora Jewish community.

So far, world Jewry has stepped up and has continued the flow of services to Ukraine. The JDC, for example, provides assistance to elderly and homebound Jews throughout the country, including food, medicine, home care, and other services. So American Jews should continue to put into practice the precept that all Jews are responsible for one another and humankind.

Meanwhile more than 1,000 civilians and combatants have been killed since mid-April in Ukraine, while tens of thousands of people have fled to Russia, the West, and Israel. True more Jews are mulling over aliyah – about a thousand have departed for Israel since the beginning of the year, but there is no panic.

No one denies that anti-Semitism exists in Ukraine, as it does in every country in Europe. A few incidents have rocked the Jewish community, whose population is between 100,000 and 300,000.

Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, both the Russian and Ukrainian governments have spoken out against anti-Semitism and have supported their respective Jewish communities.

The Ukrainian-Russian situation consists of aggressive acts and counter-acts between two rivals involved in armed clashes and economic, social, and propaganda warfare. Russia and Ukraine have a long history of “bad blood” between them and we should not allow Jews to become a scapegoat. Moreover, we should not look back to World War II to decide which country is the villain now; the victim of the past could be the villain of today.

Meanwhile, in my mind, I keep seeing a recent Jerusalem Post photo of men attending morning prayers in a synagogue in war-torn Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine. They are our brothers (and sisters) and one can only pray they will weather the storm. It’ll help if they know American Jewry supports all Ukrainian Jews and won’t ignore the story that won’t go away soon and will probably get worse.

Ben G. Frank, journalist and travel writer, is the author of three books on Russia and Ukraine: “Klara’s Journey, A Novel,” (Marion Street Press) “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond,”(Globe Pequot Press), as well as the author of “A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and the Ukraine” (Pelican Publishing Co.).

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