Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Actual unemployment in Ukraine is about 15 to 20 percent, estimated one foreign diplomat; it is higher among young people and in smaller cities, he added.  Disaffection with the government is very high, he observed, but the opposition is weak and is itself subject to powerful business interests with limited concern for the broader interests of the country.  Yanukhovych can afford to remain complacent because he retains control over security forces, said the envoy.  Political demonstrations are permitted and contained.[7]  The people may be unhappy, but they also are tired and passive.


Russia remains an abiding concern, a powerful neighbor to the north and east.  It controls more than three-quarters of Ukraine's energy resources and maintains a large naval base in Crimea.  It meddles in Orthodox church politics, attempting to impose the will of the Moscow patriarchy over Ukrainian Orthodoxy.  The government of Ukraine strives to forge a discrete Ukrainian identity, separating itself from its former Russian colonial past.  Use of the Ukrainian language is strongly encouraged, although Russian remains the dominant tongue in most large cities and in much of eastern Ukraine.  Most educated Ukrainians and residents of western Ukraine, regardless of educational background, identify more closely with central Europe and the West in general than with Russia.


Responsible estimates of the size of the Jewish population in Ukraine range from 80,000 to 200,000, with the largest single number – 20,000 to 50,000 - residing in the capital city of Kyiv.  A somewhat smaller number of Jews is believed to live in Dnipropetrovsk, and progressively smaller Jewish populations are to be found in Odesa, Kharkiv, and Donetsk.  No other Ukrainian city has even 10,000 Jews.[8]


No Jewish population center in Ukraine can be characterized as the center of Ukrainian Jewry.  Notwithstanding its stature as the national capital and the relatively large size of its Jewish population, Kyiv remains without effective Jewish leadership,[9] a city with multiple Jewish offices but little sense of Jewish activism or direction.  Odesa, as always, is the Jewish intellectual and cultural capital, and Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv are important centers of Chabad activity.  However, the majority of Ukrainian Jews remain distant from Jewish engagement, finding little of interest in contemporary Jewish life.


Conventional antisemitism is an enduring presence in Ukraine, so much so that many parents do not reveal family Jewish ancestry to children, fearing that their offspring may blurt out this awkward fact in school or another group setting.[10]  Nonetheless, observers report few acts of antisemitic violence, such as assaults on Jews as individuals or graffiti or other damage to Jewish community buildings or cemeteries.[11]  More common is street antisemitism in the form of remarks about conspicuous Jewish wealth[12] and such insensitive acts as the construction of large Chanukah menorahs near churches.  The Internet also hosts a number of Russian and Ukrainian antisemitic sites that blame Jews for various adversities in Ukrainian life, including Communist rule in Ukraine during the Soviet period, the Holodmor,[13] and continuing Russian influence in now-independent Ukraine.


Of concern to many is the strengthened showing of the right-wing Svoboda (Freedom) party in 2012 Ukraine parliamentary elections.[14]   Fascist in orientation, Svoboda gained 10.44 percent of the popular vote, entitling it to 37 seats in Parliament.  As one observer noted, Svoboda bears little resemblance to an organized political Oleh Tyahnybokparty; instead, he continued, it is more of a concept, an undisciplined mob that is unable to control its rank and file.  On the one hand, some of its adherents voice strongly bigoted views against Jews and Russians; on the other, some of its leadership has reached out to official Israeli representations, asserting that they are not antisemitic and that their use of offensive language is not anti-Jewish in intent.


Oleh Tyahnybok, a native of Lviv and leader of Svoboda, and his followers have made many inflammatory comments in public speeches against Jews and Russians.


Photo:  Retrieved May 31, 2013.


Monitors of Ukrainian antisemitism acknowledge that Svoboda often seems more anti-Russian than antisemitic and that unlike Jobbik, the antisemitic political party in Hungary, Svoboda has no associated paramilitary forces.  However, Svoboda activists continue to employ antisemitic and other xenophobic rhetoric in public statements, defying hopes that their success in the 2012 elections and apparent desire to appear mainstream might effect some moderation in their speech.  Their frequent expressions of bigotry as members of Parliament may have legitimized such language in public life.  Further, their lack of internal discipline frightens many observers who believe that such verbal violence may escalate and generate physical attacks on people and property.


Relations between Ukraine and Israel remain strong.  The few anti-Israel demonstrations that occur, said one diplomat, attract about ten people and usually are instigated by Palestinians who have some involvement with local communists.  In general, Ukrainians admire Israel for its successful formulation and articulation of a national idea - Zionism; more than two decades after independence, Ukrainians continue to search for a coherent national identity.





The writer interviewed 74 individuals during her travels in Ukraine, including five diplomats attached to foreign representations.  The diplomats are not identified by name or position in this review.







A famous port city on the shores of the Black Sea, Odesa was founded by a Turkish khan in 1240 and was controlled by Turks until the 1789 Turkish-Russian War.    During  much of  the  nineteenth century,   it was a free port,   a factor that doubtless has contributed to the diversity of its population, which includes  Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Poles, Romanians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Italians, Germans, Frenchmen, and others.


Symbolic of the extraordinary role of Odesa in Russian culture is the famed Odesa National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, which dates from 1810.  Seating 1,636, it is renowned for its opulent baroque style and its fine acoustics.


Photo:  Retrieved May 31, 2013.

From the 1880’s until the 1920’s, the Jewish population of Odesa was the second largest in Russia (after Warsaw, which was then within tsarist Russia).  According to general censuses, 139,984 Jews (34.65 percent of the municipal population) lived in Odesa in 1897, and 153,194 Jews (36.4 percent) resided in the city in 1926.[15]   Eighty-three synagogues were counted in the city 100 years ago, prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.


Pogroms occurred in 1821, 1859, 1871, 1881, and 1905.  Notwithstanding repeated anti-Jewish violence, Jews were well-represented in Odesa commerce and general culture.  Odesa Jews also developed an extensive network of Jewish educational and cultural institutions, and the city became a notable center of popular Zionism.  Among Odesans who achieved prominence in the Zionist movement are Ahad Ha’am, Menachem Mendel Ussishkin, Meir Diezengoff, Haim Nachman Bialik, Leon Pinsker, and Vladimir Jabotinsky.


Approximately 180,000 Jews lived in Odesa in 1939.  At least half of the Jewish population managed to flee the city before it was occupied by German and Romanian troops in October 1941 following a protracted siege.  Most of the remaining Jews were slaughtered in several massacres during the Holocaust in 1941 and 1942. Others were transported to regional concentration camps, where some died in mass shootings and some perished from starvation, disease, and exposure to harsh winter weather.


As is the case throughout the post-Soviet states, no reliable demographic data exists about the contemporary Jewish population of Odesa.  The writer heard estimates ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 individuals eligible for immigration to Israel under provisions of the Law of Return.[16]  The majority of responses were closer to 20,000.



[7]  The writer observed an ongoing demonstration in support of Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister and electoral opponent of Mr. Yanukhovich, who was subject to a politically-inspired trial and is now imprisoned near Kharkiv.  The protest was mounted on the Kreshchatyk, the broad boulevard that is the main street of Kyiv, and continued over several days under police protection.

[8]  These numbers refer to self-identified Jews.  They should be multiplied by three to account for non-Jewish family members who are eligible for immigration to Israel under the provisions of the Israeli Law of Return.  The Jewish population of Russia is more concentrated, with large Jewish populations remaining only in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

[9] Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a Brooklyn-born Karlin-Stolin hasid, is the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine, but now spends approximately half of the year outside Ukraine.  He is unable to exercise leadership in absentia.  See pages 122-123.

[10]  Anecdotal evidence abounds of individuals declining to identify as Jews, of coming-of-age disclosures of Jewish heritage,  and of deathbed acknowledgments of Jewish ancestry

[11]  Vyecheslav Likhachev, the most eminent observer of antisemitism in Ukraine, reported nine acts of antisemitic criminal vandalism throughout Ukraine in 2012.  See his Preliminary Results of 2012 Monitoring of Manifestations of Anti-Semitism in Ukraine at  The report was written under the aegis of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.  See also pages 135-137 of this document for an interview with Mr. Likhachev.

[12]   Many oligarchs in Ukraine are Jewish.

[13]  The Holodmor (deriving from the word golod or holod, which means hunger) was a man-made famine occurring in 1932-1933 in Ukraine and several adjacent areas of Russia that is believed to have killed three to seven million people.  Major causes of the tragedy were collectivization of agriculture and rapid industrialization.

[14]   The formal name of Svoboda is All-Ukrainian Union "Svoboda" (Всеукраїнське об’єднання «Свобода», Ukr.).

[15]  Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 12 (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971), page 1319.

[16]  The Law of Return of the State of Israel specifies that individuals with at least one Jewish grandparent are eligible for Israeli citizenship.

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