Political Unrest in Ukraine Brings Anti-Semitism to the ForeUkrainian Jewry Urgently Needs Our Help Now More Than Ever!
The current political unrest in the Ukraine has been widely covered in the press. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens have taken to the street in mass demonstrations against the ruling government’s recent decisions vis-à-vis the future of the country. The occupation – and subsequent relinquishment - of Kiev’s City Hall this week by protestors was only the latest event to make headlines as the often violent and stormy demonstrations have stretched on since November, with at least three protestors being killed by police in that time and scores of others wounded on both sides.The protestors had occupied City Hall for two months as a protest against President Viktor F. Yanukovych’s decision in November to spurn a long-discussed and long-anticipated trade deal with the European Union and instead tilt Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic of 46 million people, toward keeping working cooperation with Russia. Although the protestors finally left City Hall on Sunday, Feb. 16, they made it clear that they had not given up the fight. They threatened to quickly take it back if the authorities did not immediately fulfill a pledge to drop all criminal charges against the hundreds of political activists that have been arrested.On Sunday, tens of thousands of people poured into Independence Square in Kiev to join a boisterous anti-government rally that featured speeches denouncing Mr. Yanukovych’s “bandit regime” and calling for his swift resignation. Some commentators speculated that Ukraine was “on the brink of civil war” as lines of masked men in helmets lined the streets that are filled with burnt tires, garbage and sandbags.The ongoing demonstrations revolve around the standoff between the government and the opposition regarding the issue of whether Ukraine should embrace closer relations with the E.U. or remain tightly bound to Russia. Even before the demonstrations began, Ukraine was going through major economic distress and the mood in the street was not good. The government’s decision to turn away from the E.U. further exacerbated the atmosphere until it blew up in a rousing crescendo. Ostensibly, the protests have no direct relation to the thriving and growing Jewish communities in Ukraine. However, the atmosphere of chaos and anarchy that has gripped the nation has had a strong effect on the Jews. And it is not a positive one to say the least.As we all are well aware, political upheaval and anti-government revolutions have historically been perilous times for the Jews. And this time is no exception. While the police have their hands full trying to maintain some small semblance of law and order in the streets, Jew haters have taken full advantage of the chaotic confusion that now reigns to openly attack Jews verbally and physically. Accounts of attacks against Jews have sharply risen and people are now frightened to set foot in the street, even in broad daylight. The situation has become untenable and decades of hard work that went into the building of the Ukrainian Jewish communities is now in danger of dissipating. A Jewish Community Emerges from the Ashes: For hundreds of years the Jewish communities of the Ukraine, most notably the large cities of Kiev, Odessa, and Lvov (Lemberg), flourished spiritually. This all came to an end during the Holocaust. When Rav Yaakov Bleich shlita, today the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, arrived in Kiev in Jan., 1990 at the behest of the Stoliner Rebbe shlita, he found barely a minyan of observant Jews there that met only on Shabbos morning – all of whom were elderly men. Yet, remarkably, under Rav Bleich’s guidance, the community has experienced a rebirth.Today, the frum kehilla in Kiev itself numbers a few hundred families of shomrei Torah u’mitzvos. They have built up a system of institutions including a kindergarten with over 80 children, a yeshiva gedolah and Kollel with a total of over 50 full-time talmidim, a cheder for boys from frum homes with 63 children, a Bais Yaakov type girls’ school with 35 girls from frum homes. Additionally, another 125 children are in a day school set up for children not from frum family that are willing to give their children a Jewish education. The two large shuls in town are brimming with life, and regular minyanim are also held in four other locations around the city. The community also has a vibrant student center, which is used as a means to reach students and young professionals. The center has blossomed into its own kehilla for beginners to Judaism and offers myriad services and kiruv resources. Kehillos are also flourishing in Odessa and Lvov.Tensions Mount: In a recent conversation, Rav Bleich related, “The demonstrations themselves are not a problem for our community. The problem is that on the fringes of the demonstrations there are people who are taking advantage of the lawlessness and anarchy that the demonstrations bring to terrorize our community. What’s happened as a result is that our community is under attack. These are premeditated anti-Semitic attacks.In one of the worst incidents to date, a yungerman was stabbed while walking home from shul on a Friday night. In another, somebody was beaten up in the doorway of his own home. Many people have reported being followed home from shul and stalked menacingly in the streets.The stabbing victim was 30-year-old Kollel yungerman, Dov Ber Glickman. Dov Ber noticed that he was being followed on his way home. The assailants then attacked him from behind and beat him. After he fell down, they proceeded to stab him three times in both legs before fleeing the scene. Dov Ber managed to get up and returned to the shul where he lost consciousness. His friends called an ambulance, but Dov Ber lost a considerable amount of blood before arriving in the hospital. He underwent surgery and is recovering.The victim in the beating incident was a teacher in the Jewish school in Kiev. He was brutally attacked by three thugs and required medical treatment at a local hospital. The incident occurred as the man was returning from Maariv in shul. The three attackers followed him home from shul and viciously attacked him before he entered the apartment building. Politics Doesn’t Matter, Jewish Lives Do: “It’s not important to us which side the attackers belong to,” explained Rav Bleich. “We are not and don’t want to be part of the debate of pro-Europe or pro-Russia. Jews have a good relationship with the current government. And they also have a good relationship with most of the opposition. Obviously, most of the Jews want to be part of Europe, rather than a part of Russia. And most Ukrainians want that too. Even the President was pushing for immigration all these years. He decided we’re not ready for it yet and need to first retain ties with Russia. But everyone agrees Europe is what Ukraine needs. We have to have good relations with Russia and the U.S. But the society we need to be connected to most is Europe. But that’s not the point here. We just don’t want to be part of the debate. We want to continue living in peace as Jews.”When asked if there were any indications that demonstrators were behind the attacks, he replied, “We have no proof that it’s the demonstrators doing the crimes whatsoever. The only thing we have proof of is that in the atmosphere of revolution, Yidden have become karbonos. But we cannot blame the demonstrators or the regime. Our issue here is not blame. Our issue is that we had a community that has been growing exponentially, where people felt safe. Today they don’t feel safe. Whose fault is it? What difference does it make? The fact is that we now have to take measures to protect our community that we never had to take before. We had to hire armed guards and security companies for all our schools, our shuls, our kindergarten, our community center. This is something we never had to do in the past.”When we asked if the government was doing anything to stop the attacks, Rav Bleich answered, “What can the government do to help now when their under attack by the demonstrations? I don’t say they’re doing nothing. They arrested a guy who was following people home from the shul and have tried to help in some way. We’d like it to be more but the policemen today are busy fighting against the demonstrations. We asked for extra police presence near our buildings and we didn’t get it. It could be if that if things were normal we would get it. But right now we don’t have that.Rav Bleich asserts that he has never seen anti-Semitism that was anything like this in all his years on the Ukraine. “Before this there was very little anti-Semitism,” he says. “It was nothing you could speak about. Definitely, there are certain elements of anti-Semitism that are coming out now that were hidden for many years. These sentiments may have existed before, but they remained under wraps until now.”Although Rav Bleich does not blame the protestors for the attacks, he does say that he’s worried about one group within the opposition. Svoboda, literally Freedom, is a Ukrainian rightwing, nationalist political party with strong Fascist leanings. The party was founded in 1991 as the Social-National Party of Ukraine and acts as a populist proponent of nationalism and anti-communism. Svoboda is an official part of the opposition coalition in Parliament. Many prominent members of Svoboda are openly anti-Semitic and some have praised the most monstrous Nazi villains and identified with them. The anti-government sentiment has helped Svoboda reach a zenith of popularity and this is very dangerous to the Jewish community.Rav Bleich, however, is quick to point out that this is not a political issue. “The point is that today we have a problem in the Ukraine. We need to hire security. That’s the whole problem. We have to focus on the fact that we have a yeshiva with a kehilla, with a cheder, with shuls and thriving community life, and now people are simply afraid to go in the street. We have a popular night seder in the yeshiva. But in order to keep it going, we need armed guards to escort home whoever stays in yeshiva to learn. There are now three guards there every night from 6pm until 1am just to walk people back and forth from yeshiva. That’s the matzav.”“One of our problems,” says the Rov, “is that nobody - neither from the government nor from the opposition - has made any statement condemning the situation, condemning that a guy was stabbed walking home on a Thursday night. No one said anything. They are all just blaming one another. I don’t care whose side is at fault. I just want them to clearly condemn it and say it must stop.”When asked what American Jews can do to help, Rav Bleich had two messages. “First of all they have to lobby their Senators and Congressmen and tell them unequivocally that they should be aware that within the coalition of the Ukrainian opposition is an anti-Semitic group. They should say that we don’t want our tax dollars to support a government that has within it elements of rightwing Fascism and radical nationalism.Secondly, we’d like Amrican Jews to know that we need them to help us by supporting the security efforts we have to take on to try to ensure that the unrest doesn’t, chas veshalom, effect the learning and avodas hashem of the kehilla kedoshah of Ukraine.”Emergency Appeal: The cost of securing the communities is higher than people might think. Rav Bleich related that in order to secure the buildings, the community needed to bring in special Israeli security firms that are experts in this field. The cost is $150-200,000 per building. The Kiev community consists of nine institutional buildings. Odessa has 12. Thus, we are already talking about millions of dollars.Additionally, the armed guards of course need to be paid regularly. The cost of this $1,000 per day in Kiev alone. This is all in addition to the community’s regular budget of $300,000 per month. Until now, the community has struggled mightily to cover the regular bills. To cover the additional security expenses they desperately need our help. The gedolei Yisroel have signed a proclamation urging everyone to donate a minimum of $100 to the emergency campaign to protect Ukraine’s Jewish communities. The proclamation was signed by the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rav Malkiel Kotler, and Rav Osher Kalmanovitch shlita.Rav Bleich recently penned the following letter: “Today we are faced with a heartbreaking and dangerous moment for the Ukrainian Jewish Community. A number of violent and tragic anti-Semitic incidents have occurred during recent weeks which must be immediately dealt with and stopped. Hatred such as this grows like a weed, with little water and for no good reason. We cannot allow this to occur. I am writing to ask that you join me in providing immediate security to the Jewish population in Kiev and surrounding areas.In the 24 years I have been living in Ukraine, we have never experienced these types of anti-Semitic attacks. This is not what Ukraine is all about. We were able to rebuild Jewish life and its infrastructure after the devastation prior to and during the Holocaust. However, there are fringe groups exploiting the present political instability. We must do whatever we can to protect Jewish life and the 360,000 Jewish people living in Ukraine.Your generosity will allow us to provide 24 hour enhanced security measures via professional staff, specialized equipment and transportation to secure the community and dozens of community buildings which include schools for hundreds of children and young adults as well as our synagogues, a home for Jewish Elderly, community center, student center, yeshiva and many others.”The situation of the Ukrainian Jewish communities is now quite precarious. In order to preserve the future the present must be protected. And they are turning to us to help protect them. Dare we turn them down?Donations can be mailed to American Friends of Kiev 421 7th Ave., Suite 901 New York, NY 10001, called in 24/6 to 718-676-4099, emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, or donated online at www.helpkievjews.org.