The displacement of the Jews of Eastern Ukraine
Interview with Sam Sokol, author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews: Antisemitism, Propaganda, and the Displacement of Ukrainian Jewry. Interviewer: Daniel Gleichgewicht.
DANIEL GLEICHGEWICHT: In your book, you describe the situation of the Jewish communities in Ukraine after the Maidan events of 2014. What have you been hearing about the current situation?
SAM SOKOL: As of the last time I really looked into it deeply, most of what I could gather was about the Jewish community living outside the LNR and DNR. You obviously see a lot of people who left the Donbas, came to Israel or further places. Those who stayed have mostly been resettled. And it was a challenge: the Ukrainian government wasn’t providing a lot help for resettlement, the economy was in the garbage. So, there is no real difference I think between the Jews who have been displaced and non-Jews who have been displaced: in terms of individuals, in terms of how they are getting along. In terms of communal life – that is something else. Meaning in Eastern Ukraine you have these communities that really only started to build up these cohesive communal units since the end of the Soviet Union. And you had these efforts to sort of hold that communal structure together, but the communities were scattered over such a large distance that what’s left was a shadow of former selves.
For example, Pinkhas Vyshedskiy, the rabbi of Donetsk, started a community in Kyiv. So it is sort of the Donetsk Jewish community in Kyiv. They have a synagogue and they have activities, and they try to stay together, but it is not what it was. I haven’t been back to Donetsk since 2014 because after, most of my reporting was focused on people once they got out rather than those who were left there. An overwhelming majority of people, especially the people who were communally connected, who were involved into running their communal institutions, sort of the people who were communal glue—they left. So, it is hard to tell what’s left there in Donetsk, but I can imagine it is not something particularly vibrant. They were decimated.
How did the Jews of Ukraine react to the rise of President Zelenskyy? What are their expectations towards his administration? Any different from the previous one?
From what I gather, there is certain amount of hope, but also a certain amount of trepidation. There have been multiple reports and I have heard from people I spoke to that there’s sort of this feeling among some people and Jewish communities: “Okay, what if he screws up badly? We are going to get blamed”. In an opinion poll taken in late 2018 the majority of people said that they would not vote for a Jewish candidate. And then the elections come around and… he is Jewish, but this is not the main defining feature of him. He is a celebrity and everyone hates Poroshenko. So, they voted 73 something per cent for him.
So it could become his main feature if he fails spectacularly?
Possibly. Quite interestingly it seems like Ukraine started to turn around the corner because it wasn’t discussed at all. It wasn’t like it was an issue but people shouted it down. Nobody cared that he was Jewish, and you know – there has been a real rise in nationalism in Ukraine because of the war, but there also has been sort of a movement towards redefining nationalism as a civic nationalism rather than an ethnic nationalism. I’m not talking about the far-right in this case, more about the mainstream. When you have the rehabilitation of Bandera and Shukhevych, you have them whitewashing the xenophobia because they want heroes, but they don’t want the fascist baggage that comes with it. It’s sort of interesting how it is playing out.
One of the things that is interesting about Zelenskyy is that he is giving mixed messages on how he is going to approach these memory issues and how he is going to approach the far right. On the one hand, it was a very positive move that recently Volodymyr Viatrovych was fired as head of the Institute of National Remembrance. That was taken as a positive sign. Nobody believes Zelenskyy is going to repudiate Bandera, but a lot of people have been thinking he will soft pedal the revisionism, just slowly pull it back. But on the other hand, he was recently photographed meeting with the members of C14 and Honcharuk, his prime minister, was recently photographed at a neo-Nazi concert. This was you know this veteran-strong concert. And the main group was a neo-Nazi band. And he is up on stage. It’s a very weird situation.
Now that the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has disappeared from the headlines, how difficult has it become to get support for the Jews in the region? Was it easier before?
I mean look, the truth of the matter is that it feels like the community has always had a hard sell trying to convince people to care about what is going on. When the conflict started, in 2014, that was the same year when we had this big clash between Israel and Hamas. And a lot of Jewish organisations that might have raised money for Ukraine ended up do fundraising campaigns for Israel instead.
You mentioned how late everything was coming in and how the funds were really difficult to find.
Yeah, it felt like a lot of Jewish organisations just didn’t know or care about what was going on.
Is the Ukrainian Jewish community capable of standing on both its feet?
I’m not really up on how things are going financially now. I’d have to imagine things are improving cause the overall situation is improving in the country. I don’t think they are in need of the same amount of aid as they were previously. Because the war is still going on but it stabilised. It’s not good but it is no longer what it was. And the people who have been displaced have been displaced, people who needed to be resettled have been resettled. So, it is not as urgent of a problem as it was.
What about the Ukrainian Jews that migrated to Israel? What are their fates?
They didn’t keep any sort of an organised communal structure of staying in groups. You know, “these are Lugansk Jews, this are Slavyansk Jews, these are Dnipro Jews, Kyiv Jews”. They just got absorbed in the larger Israeli society, into the Russian communities here, into the general communities. A number of people who moved here that I’d spoke to actually have been a little disappointed in Israel. One person I interviewed kept talking at how uncultured Israelis are and how Ukraine is culturally superior. Another one I interviewed was telling me about how much she misses Ukraine and she wants to go back.
So, there is hope for some that they can still pick up where they left?
I don’t think that they have hope, they just want it, they don’t think it will happen. Because this isn’t like the big wave of immigration in the 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union when people were desperate to get out and were so happy to come here.
There’s still a system to receive them, the infrastructure is still in place, but the truth of the matter is that regarding the people who were left after the great migration in the nineties didn’t want to leave. I asked Natan Sharansky about this once and he told me basically that these are the hard core, the people who feel that Ukraine is their home, who don’t want to be forced out, who like being there. And the actual immigration statistics during the conflict backed this up. If you would chart out like a graph of the immigration, whenever the war would heat up, immigration would spike and when things would calm down it would precipitately decline. People wanted to stay, these were their homes. So the people who came here weren’t willing immigrants going: “Oh I want to go to Israel, I want to get out”, these were people who were forced out by violence and economic collapse. This wasn’t their choice.
And apart from the state absorption system, did the Russian-speaking community prepare for them?
Not really. Because everyone who came in previous waves of immigration from Russian-speaking countries knew the system, knew what they came through and what to expect. So people who would come were brought into communities, they had people from previous waves of immigration who they could talk to and get advice from. I immigrated to Israel, from the States, it’s very different. But when I moved here, I moved to an English-speaking neighbourhood which was great for me because I had a place to land. It is the same way if you are Ukrainian. There is going to be stores that sell Russian and Ukrainian products, there is going to be Russian-language newspapers. And they have a Russian-language television station here. You can get Ukrainian and Russian satellite channels.
If you have a large number of people from the same community moving to the same city, moving to Kyiv, it is possible for a local rabbi to try build up something. But here in Israel people just integrated where they could. Now they are just becoming Israeli. You walk down the street here you will hear Russian, French, Amharic, Arabic, a million varieties of English, Spanish. You will hear whatever because wherever you are from there is going to be a community you can land in. It’s very cosmopolitan.
Sam Sokol is a journalist based in Jerusalem. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews: Antisemitism, Propaganda, and the Displacement of Ukrainian Jewry.
Daniel Gleichgewicht is an editor with New Eastern Europe.