Ukrainian Jews split over Russian action in Crimea

cnaan liphshiz   |   jta

Shortly after Russian soldiers occupied the Crimean city of Sevastopol last week, Leah Cyrlikova took her two children out for an afternoon stroll in a city park.

When they passed a group of soldiers, they stopped to have a friendly chat and pose with them for photos.

Soldiers under Russian command at the Belbek airbase in Crimea on March 4 photo/jta-getty images-sean gallup

While many Ukrainian Jews have strongly condemned the Russian military incursion into Crimea, others see the intervention as restoring order in the wake of a violent revolution that last month overthrew the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

“I feel safer with them around,” said Cyrlikova, a Jewish Ukrainian who has lived in Sevastopol for five years. “These are crazy times, and now I know that if something bad happens, they will stop it.”

Divisions within the Ukrainian Jewish community have deepened in the wake of last week’s Russian troop movement into the Crimean Peninsula, where approximately 10,000 Jews live amid an ethnic Russian majority.

Many Ukrainian Jews took part in the anti-Yanukovych protests centered in Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence Square, in February. Jews participated despite the fact that the protests included far-right activists and some political figures who have been known to espouse anti-Semitic views. But support for the revolution is hardly unanimous among the country’s Jews.

Rabbi Misha Kapustin, whose Reform synagogue in the Crimean capital of Simferopol was recently vandalized with swastikas, acknowledged that some Jews support Russian involvement in the crisis.

“In this area there is considerable support for the Russian invasion, and the local [Crimean Jewish] community is very assimilated here,” Kapustin said. “You should take into account the effect of Russian propaganda: the television they watch, what papers they read.”

For himself, he feels his country is being invaded by foreigners.

“How would a Brit feel if another nation invaded London? That’s how I feel as a citizen of Ukraine,” Kapustin said.

Residents of Crimea are at present able to move around freely at all hours, Kapustin said. They are also free to leave the peninsula for other parts of Ukraine. Kapustin asked his wife, Marina, to leave for Israel until the situation stabilizes. She refused.

“I stayed to remain with my community, but I wasn’t very happy my family also stayed,” Kapustin said. “I would rather see them as far away from the action as possible, but I respect Marina’s choice.”

The United States has condemned Russian “aggression” in Ukraine and threatened to impose economic sanctions in response. Major news agencies, as well as American and Ukrainian officials, have reported a massive mobilization of Russian troops in Crimea. But speaking at a news conference near Moscow on March 4, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that his troops had occupied Crimea, saying that he has the right to act militarily to protect Ukrainian citizens from an “orgy” of radical nationalists and anti-Semites.

“Death to the Yids” was scrawled on a Simferopol synagogue Feb. 28. photo/jta-courtesy simferopol reform synagogue ner tamid

“We have seen the work of neo-Nazis in Ukraine,” Putin said. “They and anti-Semites are rampant in Ukraine today.”

Putin seemed to be referencing the prominent role in the Kiev protests of Svoboda, a xenophobic political party whose members have referred to Jews as “kikes.” Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok has described his movement as the “worst fear of the Jewish-Russian mafia.”

On March 3, Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, appointed Svoboda politician Sidor Kizin governor of the Zhytomyr district, pending elections scheduled for May. At the same time, Jewish businessman Igor Kolomoisky was appointed governor of the Dnipropetrovsk district.

The protest movement erupted in November when the Yanukovych government began drawing closer to Russia and away from the European Union. The revolution has exposed deep, longstanding divisions between the country’s mostly Ukrainian-speaking west and the more Russian-oriented east and south.

“The Maidan revolution was a dangerous thing,” said Boruch Gorin, a prominent Lubavitch rabbi in Moscow who was born in the predominantly Russian-speaking city of Odessa in southern Ukraine. “The decision to abandon democracy as a tool for change and adopt violence is always frightening, especially to minorities.”

At the same time, Gorin says Russia’s mobilization in Ukraine is not motivated by its concern for Jews but by the new Ukrainian government’s scrapping of a law recognizing Russian as an official language. Russian intervention, he said, was an error that would mainly serve to reignite Ukrainian nationalist fervor.

“All said and done,” Gorin said, “Jews and non-Jews in Ukraine perceive Russian military intervention as a bigger threat than any revolutionary government.”

Amid the months of unrest leading up to Yanukovych’s ouster, unknown assailants staged two violent attacks on Jews in Kiev. On Jan. 17, an Orthodox Jew was stabbed after leaving a synagogue. The week before, another Orthodox Jew was beaten outside his home. Both men are expected to recover fully.

On Feb. 23, the day after Yanukovych’s ouster, a synagogue was firebombed in southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia. It sustained only minor damage.

Last week, unidentified individuals drew swastikas and wrote “Death to the Yids” on the front door of Kapustin’s Simferopol synagogue in Crimea.

Some leaders of Ukrainian Jewry, including a Kiev-based Ukrainian chief rabbi, Yaakov Dov Bleich, suggest that at least some of these incidents may have been provocations by pro-Russian forces seeking to justify Russian involvement in the crisis.

At a press conference in New York on March 3, Bleich called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. He drew a parallel between Russian actions in Crimea and the false pretenses Hitler used to justify his invasions and annexations of other countries in the 1930s.

But others say the threat of anti-Semitic violence is real and that Russian protection is vital for Ukrainian Jews. Baruch Fichman, founder and president of the Ukrainian League Against Anti-Semitism, based in the western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi, said Ukrainian neo-Nazis are feeling emboldened by the revolution’s success and are more dangerous now.

“The threat of Russian intervention is a good thing because it will cause the neo-Nazis to rethink their attacks on Jews,” Fichman said. “Russian intervention in other places in Ukraine would be a positive thing for the safety of the Jewish population.”


Concern, worry in Bay Area and elsewhere outside Ukraine

sue fishkoff   |   j. staff

Bay Area Jews who are natives of Ukraine worry about friends and family back home, while Jewish aid organizations discuss worst-case scenarios as Russia solidifies its hold on Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine shows no signs of abating.

“My friends there are saying, ‘Now we feel afraid,’ ” said San Francisco resident Yelena Bilyak, 47, who emigrated 21 years ago from Lvov, Ukraine. “They say, ‘When we were standing together on Maidan [Kiev’s main square], we felt we could change something.’ Now it’s big politics.”

Alex Rayter

On Feb. 28, a week after anti-Russian demonstrations in central Kiev ended in violence, Russian troops moved into Crimea in what is so far a bloodless takeover of the strategic peninsula. Western leaders are urging Moscow to leave Crimea, and Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to Kiev, while President Barack Obama threatened to impose sanctions on Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, does not count out an invasion of eastern Ukraine, telling Bloomberg News on March 4 that while he reserved the right to defend ethnic Russians, there was “no such necessity” at present.

That does little to relieve the fears of former Ukrainian Jews in the Bay Area watching events unfold from afar.

“Last month I was devastated for Kiev, and now my city is on the line,” said San Francisco resident Yulia Zimmermann, 29, who is from Nikolayev, a southern Ukrainian city just north of Crimea. “People are still mourning [the protesters killed in] Kiev. My mother went personally to put flowers on Maidan. She said there are millions of flowers there. She grows vegetables in her garden and literally gives them away to babushkas,” Zimmermann said, using the Russian word for elderly women.

In an hourlong teleconference on March 3, representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency for Israel and other Jewish groups shared their perspectives on the conflict, and laid out possible steps they would take to support the most vulnerable Jews there if the crisis worsens.

Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, which advocates on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union, participated in the call. He called the current situation “the greatest foreign policy challenge” yet faced by Obama, and warned that Putin’s claim that he acted in Crimea to protect ethnic Russians could be used as justification to send Russian troops into eastern Ukraine as well.

Alan Gill, CEO of the JDC, described his agency’s relief efforts among the “most vulnerable” of Ukraine’s estimated “300,000 to 350,000 Jews.” A significant number are elderly, he said, adding that JDC “has instructed them to stay home so we can serve them there.”

Yulia Zimmermann spoke to reporters at a protest outside the Russian Consulate in San Francisco on March 2. photo/nbc bay area

Ofer Glantz, director of the FSU department for JDC, said the agency’s Hesed welfare centers serve 13,000 elderly Jews in southern Ukraine along with some 2,000 children. Many of the elderly are frightened, he said, and home care workers have been sleeping in clients’ homes to reassure them.

“These are vulnerable people who depend on our support,” he said. “We are making sure our operations are up and running, and that contingency plans exist.”

Anna Borovik works with a similar population of elderly Russian-speaking Jews in the Bay Area, where she runs the L’Chaim adult day care program at S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

She says most of the 120 clients in the program are Ukrainian Jews. They watch the Russian-language news on TV and then speak to their friends and family in Ukraine — and get conflicting stories that frighten them.

“These are very old and frail people,” she said. “They are Holocaust survivors. They survived World War II, they survived Stalin, they immigrated in their late 70s or 80s, and now this. They feel absolutely lost.”

Borovik is originally from Kharkov, an eastern Ukrainian city near the Russian border — one of the cities that would be targeted if Russia moves west, she notes.

“The situation is really awful,” she said. “I talk to three families I know, every day. My closest friends. They are lost, they don’t know what to do. They think there will be a Russian invasion in Kharkov.”

San Francisco resident Alex Rayter, 36, emigrated from Lvov in 1987. Like many Bay Area Jews from Ukraine, he’s been glued to the news. “I’m not taking a side,” he said. “My concerns are more practical. I don’t know that it affects me personally, but there are a lot of Jews there.”

Rayter’s cousin moved to Kiev three years ago for business, and the entire family is worried about his safety. “He’s getting more and more concerned about staying there,” Rayter said. “I’m going to call him and ask him to come home [to the Bay Area].”

The tragedy is tearing some friends and families apart in a different way. Just as there is no consensus within Ukraine on the country’s political future, Ukrainian Jews are also split between those who favor the Maidan revolution and the new government in Kiev, and those who feel safer under Russian protection.

Flowers strewn at Kiev’s Independence Square mourn those killed in the recent violence. photo/wikimedia commons

“It’s a civil war, and people are very, very divided,” said Borovik. The three families she speaks to daily in Ukraine have been friends for 50 years, she said, but now one family, which opposes the revolution, no longer speaks to the other two, who support it.

Bilyak speaks of a similar case — a family split apart. A college friend of hers from Lvov recently divorced and moved to Moscow with his 20-year-old son, while his teenage daughter remained in Lvov with his ex-wife. “So now not just our countries, but our children are supposed to be enemies,” she said. “It’s really tragic.”

Leaders of diaspora Jewish organizations are aware of the political sensitivities of the situation, and of the potential backlash that any global Jewish outcry could have on Jews in the region.

While expressing deep concern for the safety of Jews in Ukraine, Levin of the NCSJ warns against alarmism.

“We have been in regular touch with Jewish leaders in Ukraine and no one is calling for an evacuation,” he said during the March 3 teleconference. “It’s important not to cry wolf. We don’t need to inflame an already inflammatory situation.”

Despite Levin’s cautionary note, JDC and Jewish Agency leaders on the call did talk about possible evacuations if the conflict heats up. Glantz recalled that elderly Jews were taken out of Georgia in 2007 during that nation’s armed struggle with Russia, and said that JDC was ready to do it again if necessary.

Jewish Agency and Israeli government officials are meeting regularly about Ukraine, said Misha Galperin, who heads the Jewish Agency for Israel’s fundraising efforts in North America. “No one believes the Jewish community is being targeted,” he said, but Jewish leaders in Ukraine “have expressed their concerns about security.” The agency’s emergency fund will distribute $400,000 to some 97 Jewish institutions in Ukraine this week, he said, noting that those funds “will need replenishment.”

Galperin emphasized that JAFI was not taking any political stand in the conflict, but was focused only on the safety of local Jews.

“We all hope for the best, but all our offices are preparing for whatever contingencies might come,” he said. “We are contacting people [in Ukraine] so they know where to go should something happen, while we focus on the security of Jewish institutions in Ukraine so they can continue operations as well as possible.”

There has been a sharp uptick in applications for aliyah to Israel this past week, but agency leaders on the call said they were not urging Jews to leave Ukraine.

“We have to be very sensitive,” said Roman Polonsky, director of JAFI’s RSJ (Russian Speaking Jews) Unit. “We will not promote aliyah but will say the Jewish Agency is here and ready to help them.”

Public Purim celebrations have been canceled, he said, “not because of security fears but because of sensitivity to the atmosphere — people are mourning the dead of Maidan.”