Chabad in Odessa and the Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) disputed claims of a mass evacuation of the local Jewish community on Tuesday, following a spate of media reports indicating that the city’s Jews were on the verge of leaving.
The Jerusalem Post reported exclusively on Monday that several Jewish organizations in the Black Sea port had put evacuation plans into place in case of a significant deterioration in the security situation there. That report was picked up by media around the world, especially in Russia.
Those with knowledge of the matter have told the Post that a mass evacuation of the city’s 30,000 Jewish residents is not planned, but contingencies for securing the safety of many of the community’s children are on the table.
In a statement on its website, the RJC cited a local Jewish Agency representative as saying that “evacuation of the Jews from Odessa is not [being] carried out and planned.”
The sectarian violence gripping the east of the Ukraine migrated to the western city of Odessa over the weekend, with clashes between pro-Russian and Ukrainian nationalist groups leaving dozens dead.
Following the violence Rabbi Refael Kruskal – the head of the Tikva organization, which runs a network of orphanages and schools and provides social services to the city’s elderly – said that he had plans in place to evacuate his young charges should it become necessary.
Local Chabad emissary Rabbi Avraham Wolf, whose institutions likewise care for a large number of children, likewise stated that his community has “a number of plans.”
The Jewish community, together with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), has prepared a fleet of 70 buses, fueled and ready to go, “if, God forbid, we have to evacuate” the community’s children and any adults who want to leave, Wolf told the Post.
There are a number of evacuation plans, ranging from relocating within the city to sending the community’s children to Kishinev, two-and-a-half hours away in neighboring Moldova, he added.
Chabad, however subsequently backtracked, with a spokesman stating on chabad.odessa.ua that “in connection with reports on the planned evacuation of the Jewish community of Odessa: No such plans exist.”
Speaking with the Post, Michael Savin of the Russian Jewish Congress explained that the Russian media had exaggerated the Post’s report and claimed that a mass evacuation of the city’s Jews was imminent.
He said that his organization had turned to the Jewish Agency – the organization that would probably be involved in any mass evacuation of the Jewish community – to shed light on the matter.
The Jewish Agency “is not carrying out emergency evacuations in any communities at present,” an agency spokesman told the Post in response to the RJC statement.
“Buses and armed guards: Odessa Jews ready for mass evacuation,” one headline on the Russia Today website declared. “The Jewish community of Odessa is prepared for mass evacuation, should violence re-erupt in the Ukrainian city and threaten to spill over them. Anti-Semitism is a painful issue in Ukraine, with radical nationalism on the rise,” the Russian outlet reported.
The Russian media “changed this information a bit,” Savin told the Post Wednesday. “Some of them wrote that Ukrainian Jews were going to be evacuated right now.”
Jewish leaders in Odessa who spoke to the Post were clear that they did not believe that a mass evacuation was imminent, instead explaining that they were preparing should things take a turn for the worse and that they were motivated by fear of anarchy and violence, not anti-Semitism.
“Reports about evacuation are baseless rumors. Jews in Odessa are worried about the violence like all other Odessans but have no special plans to leave as a community,” Tania Vorobyov, a spokesperson for Beit Grand, a community center, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
A representative of the Migdal International center of Jewish community programs, however, did say that “if the situation will be worse we are planning to move,” although she doubted it would come to that.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the specter of Ukrainian anti-Semitism as a justification for intervention in Ukraine.
Any evacuation would only be of the Jewish community’s several thousand children, said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the IFCJ. Eckstein had been working on evacuation plans with both Kruskal and Wolf for several months, he revealed to the Post on Wednesday.
The local community is scared of what could happen should the city descend into anarchy, with nobody in control, especially as “the Jewish institutions happen to be downtown and potentially affected,” Eckstein said.
“Odessa has the bulk of the Jewish institutions. An institution like Tikva orphanages is the main [Jewish] orphanage in the Ukraine that all the other places would send their kids to, and it’s much more developed Jewishly and organizationally than Kiev, for example,” he added in explanation of his choice to work on an evacuation plan for the city.
“After the Russians took over Crimea, it was clear that if the Russians [were] going to make another move, Odessa would be a part of that move. It’s on the Black Sea where the Russian fleet is."
“I have a commitment that if it comes to evacuation, out of the country, it’s a joint effort and it hasn’t come to that,” although this coming weekend’s developments may be quite telling of what the future of Odessa holds, he said.
While Rabbi Wolf and Chabad plan on holding tight in Odessa over the weekend, Eckstein added, Rabbi Kruskal will be taking the children in his charge out to the suburbs for a couple of days to provide a much needed respite.
Asked for comment on the Jewish community’s evacuation plans, American State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told the Post that “there has been an increase in isolated anti-Semitic acts in Crimea and eastern Ukraine since the Russian occupation of Crimea.”
“Following anonymous death threats, the chief reform rabbi fled Crimea. Given the violence that began in Odessa May 2 after pro-Russian separatists attacked a Ukrainian demonstration, we understand the local community’s concerns. Our embassy is in close contact with several Jewish communities in Ukraine. We understand they’re coordinating with local authorities to keep their members informed of any developing situations.”
Michael Wilner contributed reporting from Washington. JTA contributed to this report.