Ukrainian Jewish leader says community in danger of extinction

In time of crisis, the country's Jews appeal to Israel for support.

The national flags of Israel and Ukraine (photo credit: OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE)
The national flags of Israel and Ukraine
The future of Ukraine’s Jewish community “doesn’t look very bright” and is in danger of disappearing altogether, according to one of its leaders, who ended a four-day visit to Israel on Thursday.
Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Jewish Committee, painted a bleak picture of a a struggling and scattered community to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday afternoon.
He was visiting Israel together with the committee’s president, Ukrainian MP Olexander Feldman, on a trip hosted by the Israeli-Jewish Congress, which seeks to reinforce the bonds between Israel and Jewish communities in Europe One of the main purposes of the trip was to try to heal a diplomatic rift caused between the two countries after Ukraine voted in favor of the anti-settlements United Nation Security Council resolution in December, angering Israel. But the pair also sought to gain support from Israel in strengthening Ukraine’s Jewish community.
“The Ukrainian Jewish community is in crisis,” Dolinsky states matter-of-factly, referring to the ongoing war in Donbass and the country’s dire economic situation as major factors.
While many Donbass Jews fled to Israel, Kiev or other areas of the country, some still remain in the conflict-stricken region.
The dispersed Jewish community lacks a solid foundation and, according to Dolinsky, is suffering an identity crisis.
“Either we should decide that the last one turns off the light, or we need to continue our struggle,” he tells the Post.
For the latter option, which he clearly prefers, he believes Israel can help.
Estimates of the Jewish population in Ukraine vary wildly, but Dolinsky puts it at around 250,000.
“We simply don’t see the future, where we are going as a Jewish community,” he explains. “I believe the problems of development, education, youth and identity need to be addressed.” The community lacks organization and structure.
“We have no professional resources for addressing these problems and we we could do with the help of Israel.
“Either Israel sees as just a resource for aliya or it will help us,” he says pointedly. “We need an open discussion to promote a plan for the Jewish community... a discussion between the Diaspora, Israel and Ukraine about problems of the particular community.”
The Israeli-Jewish Congress seeks to aid the organization with this endeavor, by giving it a voice with Israeli officials.
The Israeli-based organization helped facilitate a number of the meetings between their Ukrainian guests and various Israeli officials and decision makers, which included representatives from the Knesset, the Foreign Ministry, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.
Educational initiatives and bilateral engagement on the professional and community levels, as well as on the diplomatic, are the answers Dolinsky and Feldman seek.
As a gesture toward trying to repair the fractured Israel- Ukraine relations, Feldman has proposed a bill to move the Ukrainian Embassy to Jerusalem.
While the chances of that law passing may be slim, Dolinksy stresses its significance in transmitting the message that Ukraine desires better relations with Israel. The importance of a strong Ukraine-Israel alliance is a point repeatedly emphasized by Dolinsky and Feldman, both back home and during their meetings in Israel.
On Wednesday, Feldman welcomed an apparent thawing of the ice, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke on the phone and agreed to further strengthen the Israel-Ukraine friendship.
A scheduled visit by Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman had been canceled by Israel following the Security Council vote, but after Wednesday’s conversation it was put back on the table.
Feldman remarked that he is “very happy that this communication happened and relations between the two countries will develop in the same trustful and friendly manner as it was before.”
While political relations may be on the mend, Ukraine’s Jewish community remains hungry for a stronger sense of being backed by Israel. “There is a feeling of a lack of support from Israel, though we are very pro-Israel,” Dolinsky lamented.
Noting that almost all Ukrainian Jews have friends and family in Israel, he said their connection to the country is all the more strong.
Antisemitism and Holocaust denial are among the struggles the community is grappling with. Dolinsky flags a failure by his country in monitoring antisemitism, partly stemming from a lack of any definition of antisemitism and hate crimes.
He points to numerous instances of vandalism of Holocaust mass graves and Jewish cemeteries, as well as continued glorification of nationalist Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
On New Year’s Day, for instance, a march to mark the birthday of Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera saw participants yelling antisemitic slogans, including ‘Juden raus’ (Jews out!) in German. “It was guarded by hundreds of police... but after the march police told journalists they hadn’t seen any antisemitic incidents,” Dolinsky recalls.
According to Dolinsky, the glorification of Holocaust-denying Ukrainian nationalist groups is “getting worse by the day.”
“It’s an absolutely unacceptable situation to which Israel does not react,” he said. One idea is a ban on antisemites from entering Israel, he said.
“We want Israel to send a strong message of support to Jewish communities that there is a state that cares about them, because we are trying to fight against antisemites and Holocaust deniers, but we are very limited.”