Live from Ukraine: View from the Edge

On May 11th, The Jewish Agency for Israel hosted a traditional celebration of Israeli Independence Day with the Jews of the city. Photo by Roman Polonsky.
On May 11th, The Jewish Agency for Israel hosted a traditional celebration of Israeli Independence Day with the Jews of the city. Photo by Roman Polonsky.

The Jewish Agency’s Roman Polonsky reports from Ukraine: “This is the calm before the storm,” many say. “What will we do in case of emergency? How will you save us?” My answer: This is the entire reason of my visit. It is why we increased the number of our shlichim in the area, and why we are doing all the work necessary to prepare for the worst. You are not alone; not only is The Jewish Agency with you, but all of Israel and the entire Jewish world.


It was not easy to reach Donetsk on the day of the referendum on the independence of Donetsk Republic.

Yet somehow – miraculously – I managed to get a ticket and here I am on the way to Kiev, where on May 11th, The Jewish Agency, will host a traditional celebration (especially poignant this year) of Israel’s Independence Day with the Jews of the city.

In Kiev, hope is mixed with despair, optimism with anxiety. Yulia, 22, a student, says that because of the revolution, she feels much more a citizen of a free Ukraine, a country she can now be proud of. Lena, 21, thinks that the attitude towards Jews has changed for the better as their active participation in the revolution has earned the respect of many Ukrainians. They both are eager to be loyal and dedicated citizens of a new, free, and democratic Ukraine, and at the same time to work for the prosperity of the Jewish community and its connection with Israel. They are not yet thinking of Aliyah.

This attitude stands in stark contrast with the moods of the elderly and the middle aged, who speak of anti-Semitism, a scourge they feel has never truly dissipated from Ukraine’s atmosphere, especially among schoolchildren. Nina N. told me about her young daughter, locked in a restroom by her schoolmates. They wrote on the door: “Don’t enter! There is a kike here.”

Adults also feel anti-Semitism in the workplace. Galya, who works at a sewing factory, told me that an age-old accusation was hurled at her: “You kikes have come and taken all our best jobs!” It doesn’t take a great imagination to hear this with yesterday’s ears. It was certainly enough for Galya to decide on Aliyah.

Aliyah numbers from Kiev have grown by 50% as compared to the same period last year, while the numbers from the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine have skyrocketed: 315% growth in Odessa, 266% in the Dnepropetrovsk regions, and 200% in the Kharkov region.

The number of Jews interested in information on Aliyah has grown more substantially than Aliyah itself the main reason being not anti-Semitism, but rather a feeling of instability, fear for the future a general sense of unease, and a feeling, as one of my interviewees put it, “that we are standing on the edge of the deepest abyss.”

People are afraid of a possibility of war with Russia, of anarchy, of an unruly crowd that can be turned against Jews on a dime: “Here are the ones to blame!”

Observes one citizen, “Maybe Jews have gained some respect by their participation in the revolution, but this is temporary. Ukrainian citizens have never loved us. The new government brought bursts of anti-Semitism on the political level. Then, all of a sudden, this stopped. Everyone official started to protect Jews. But for how long?”

These vast differences in outlook between generations do not interfere with the celebration of the other independence – Israel’s. Israel Independence Day with The Jewish Agency is a longstanding tradition in the area, and 400 people were united by their love of Israel and their deep feelings of connection with it.

Later, I traveled to Donetsk. It does not look like a city undergoing a revolution – no crowds of protesters or armed patrols in the streets.

On the contrary, the city is striking in its emptiness. We pass through the main streets – the building of the local administration is surrounded by barricades of tires. A destroyed police headquarters is visible; there are broken windows in the building of a new governor.

While there are no check-points in the streets, neither are there people. Fearing riots, many residents left the city on the eve of May 9th (Victory Day) and the referendum (May 11th).

The main concern of the residents of Donetsk, both Jewish and non-Jewish, is personal safety and the fear of coming war with Russia, which many of them see as inevitable. What will follow the referendum, the results of which few people doubt? Will Russia send in troops?

Many gun shops have been recently looted; police are not interfering and are observing benevolent neutrality towards pro-Russian formations. At the same time, according to some reports, crime has increased 300% in the city.

The situation in Mariupol and Lugansk is even worse – jewelry stores are being robbed, cars confiscated, and shooting in the streets has become all too common.

There is deep uncertainty. More to follow …..

courtesy The Jewish Agency for Israel