Analysis: The Jews on Independence Square
How should Israel react, if at all, to the growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine
The question of whether, and how, and if at all, Israel should respond to the renewed wave of anti-Semitism that’s become part and parcel of the violent protest in Ukraine, is not entirely new. In fact, it touches once again on the very core of the existence of the Jewish state. The profound dilemma can be reduced to a simple question: is Israel only the homeland of those Jews living within its borders, or is it the motherland of all Jews, wherever they live.
The question has never been a matter of public debate, but Israel has always perceived its role as a motherland responsible for all Jews, and has consistently encouraged them to come and live here. Jews of the world therefore share a parallel dilemma: they do enjoy, and often cherish, the very notion of having a homeland for a rainy day, yet they resent the fact that wherever they live, they often suffer the blame for growing anti-Israel sentiment.
In the case of Ukraine, the situation is even more complex. Anti-Semitism, sometimes closely associated with strong nationalistic sentiment, is to be found in both the government and opposition camps. An additional, crucial factor must be remembered: the Iron Curtain was lifted a long time ago, but despite all the hardships, Ukrainian Jews chose to stay there. That choice, and its implications, must be carefully weighed.
While the world follows the unfolding crisis in Ukraine for a variety of reasons – political, economic, human – Israel has one additional motivation: the 180,000 Jews living in the large post- Soviet republic. There are many reasons to be worried. Ukraine has a long and bitter history of vicious anti-Semitism, which is alive and kicking. Just a few months ago, 61 Israeli Knesset Members from all parties, Jews and Arabs, sent a letter to the European Council, demanding symbolic sanctions in response to the anti–Semitic stance of some Ukrainian politicians associated with the Council.
The current upheaval goes hand in hand with a growing number of anti-Semitic incidents. It always does. If, in more peaceful times Jews are blamed for stealing the country – economically, financially – now they are being blamed for an attempt to steal the revolution. A member of an opposition parliamentary party recently came to Independence Square, the main Kiev location of the protest, dressed as an Orthodox Jew, and put on a skit, saying: “I have loads of money; I can buy politicians, media and, in fact, the whole country”. It was hardly funny.
Jewish participants in the demonstrations often hear the comment that “this is not the place for Zhydim”- an offensive word meaning “Jews.” Jewish demonstrators complain about being chased away from the square. An Orthodox Jew was physically attacked and hospitalized. Jewish religious institutions have hired security companies that employ former members of Israel’s security forces and Ukrainian boxing champions. An atmosphere of fear prevails. Verbal harassment easily transforms into physical threat.
Official Israel looks on from a distance with a certain bewilderment. Despite it all, only 1,997 Ukrainian Jews chose to immigrate to Israel in 2013, seven percent less than the 2,138 who came in 2012. These are quite disappointing figures for the Israeli establishment, always eager to “save” Jews or just balance Israeli demographics vis-à-vis the Arab population.
Either the threat is not that scary, or the Promised Land is not that attractive to Ukrainian Jews at the moment. It might also be that they feel deeply embedded in the fabric of Ukrainian society and are staying to fight for it.
Should Israel do more than just follow with concern? Next week, the Knesset aliyah (immigration) committee will hold a special session to discuss the fate of Ukrainian Jews. Committee chairman Yoel Razbozov, himself an immigrant from the former USSR, told i24news: “When Jews in Ukraine are exposed to such violence, we have to show them, as a state, that we stand by them. I’m afraid that one day we might wake up to a new Krystal nacht. We keep contact with opposition leaders and also demand that decision makers in Ukraine impose severe punishment on any manifestation of anti-Semitism.”
Sounds good, but is it? Any brotherly embrace from a distance only accentuates the dual identity of the Jews, labeling them as “different.” A senior official in the Israeli aliyah establishment even considers this kind of involvement by remote control quite risky for the Jewish and Israeli establishment operating in Ukraine.
In the meantime, it’s important to remember: the doors are open for the Jews to leave Ukraine, and the doors of Israel are open for them to come. As long as this is their choice, Israel’s only responsibility is to abide by that choice and not by its own ethos.
Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of “The Million that Changed the Middle East.”