Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, dear friends and colleagues!
Today, a discussion of the security of Jewish communities means first and foremost countering the ever-growing threat of anti-Semitic terrorism, whose chief perpetrators are extremist radical Islamist groups that have strengthened their presence as of late. This problem is of growing importance in both Europe and the entire world. However, even though I represent an European state, my country is presently in an entirely different context and faces other challenges.
As you know, our country is undergoing a difficult and dramatic trial. Russia’s military aggression has persisted for over a year now, and it has resulted in the occupation and annexation of part of Ukrainian territory, the deaths of thousands of our citizens, and great economic problems. Ukrainians have been forced to take up arms to protect their independence, state sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as democratic values and the right of a nation to choose its own path of development. Russian aggression has been making the process of implementing democratic changes and social and economical reforms, which began after the fall of Victor Yanukovich’s dictatorship, significantly more difficult.
The Jewish community of Ukraine is an integral part of society and has faced all of the problems of this difficult time together with the rest of the country. There were Jews among those killed at the Maidan on February 20 last year. Jews have been fighting on the frontlines side by side with citizens of Ukraine of other nationalities, giving their lives to stop Russian aggression. There are also Jews among the peaceful citizens killed during the hostilities and at the hands of armed bandits in the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Thousands of Jews — and hundreds of thousands other Ukrainians — have been forced to abandon their homes because of the hostilities.
It is the war that Ukraine’s main problems in security are related to. Over the last month the situation on the frontlines has stabilized — and that brought with it an increasing danger of terrorist attacks. Saboteurs are attempting to sow fear and chaos in Ukrainian society, to disrupt the trust between the citizens and the state, and to destroy the nation’s will to resist. Odessa, Kharkiv and other cities have come under fire, with explosions taking lives away. Naturally, these threats are not aimed at the Jews, but at all Ukrainian citizens and institutions. However, there is also a particular “Jewish” aspect to the situation at hand.
Over the last year, VAAD Ukraine has recorded five incidents of attacks on Jews and approximately 20 acts of vandalism, which is far lower than in many Western European countries. As Ambassador of Israel to Ukraine Eliav Belotserkovsky noted in an interview: “We are following everything that happens in Ukraine closely, […] and I must say that we have not seen any particular manifestations of either anti-Semitism or Fascism. We do not see that.”
First of all, it must be noted that two important factors influencing the growth of anti-Semitism in the West are practically absent in Ukraine: we do not have the radical wing of a large Muslim diaspora, and the liberal left — university professors and the cultural elite — does not criticize Israel.
Presidential and parliamentary elections:
The presidential and parliamentary elections which took place over the course of the previous year demonstrate the low popularity of far right nationalistic forces in Ukraine. Moreover, the leaders of two radical right parties Oleh Tyahnybok (“Svoboda”) and Dmitro Yarosh (“Right Sector”) together received less support at the presidential elections than a candidate with an openly Jewish surname. There are over 50 MPs with Jewish roots in the newly elected parliament of Ukraine. Its speaker is Vladimir Groysman, whose Jewishness is doubted by no one.
It is interesting that even radical right parties and movements have several times made openly pro-Jewish gestures. For example, when anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in Odessa in spring 2014, the leaders of the local “Right Sector” branch personally helped remove them.
It can be said that we are living in a time when a new myth is being born: the myth of Ukrainians who were able to protect their freedom with the Jews and Crimean Tatars as their stoutest allies in this glorious battle.
Reaction of the Jewish communities and leaders of Ukraine:
Practically all of the leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish communities and organizations have spoken many times about the low level of anti-Semitic threats — and this does not mean that the government is simply ignoring anti-Semitic incidents. On the contrary: President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk have both made statements about the inadmissibility of anti-Semitic and xenophobic manifestations in Ukraine. The creation of the post of Government Representative for Ethno-National Policy under the Cabinet of Ministers and other special posts and departments in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Security Services of Ukraine, the Prosecutor General’s office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs serve to confirm the efforts of the new government to stand against xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
Naturally, criminal proceedings have been instigated concerning all of the anti-Semitic incidents in question, and important cases such as the desecration of the memorial to the Jews murdered in Babiy Yar and an arson attempt made on the Kyiv synagogue in the Podil district are marked as highly important. The mayor of Kyiv, Vladimir Klitschko, said that “the government attempts to act preemptively, so that people will not even want to attempt inciting national or religious hatred.” The mayor also ordered the police to strengthen their presence at the Jewish community buildings.
Of special note are the efforts of Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs to provide for the safety of Jewish pilgrims to Uman for the Rosh-ha-Shana celebrations.
In 2014, 5800 thousand Jews and members of Jewish families repatriated to Israel from Ukraine. This is almost three times more than in 2013, and Ukraine is now second in Europe only to France with its 7000 repatriated Jews. If we look at the regional distribution, we will see that almost half of the repatriants are from the Donbass region. There is also an increase of about 20% in repatriants from the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in early 2014.
At the same time, there is practically no aliyah from Western Ukraine — the most openly nationalistic Ukrainian region. This shows quite clearly that the main reason for Ukrainian aliyah is the war in the Donbass region.
Situation of Jews in Crimea and Donbass:
Unfortunately, we must note that over ten thousand Jews and members of their families yet remain in occupied territory in Donbass. Like the rest of the civil population remaining there, they exist in terms of endless hostilities. The conditions can be described as a humanitarian crisis, and the Jews there require humanitarian relief and help in evacuating the territories subject to hostilities. The reasons people stay are many: no relatives and friends to help leave, old age, and the only property these people have — their apartments, which they are afraid to leave even though their lives are threatened by staying. Unfortunately, in these conditions Joint, JAFI and the Embassy of Israel cannot provide enough help, and also require systematic aid and support to do so.
Importantly, on the very day that Simferopol, the administrative center of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, was occupied by the Russian military, an act of vandalism took place at the local synagogue. Notably, this was the first such incident on the peninsula since the declaration of Ukrainian independence. The incident was touted by Russian propaganda in order to scare the residents of the peninsula and create an artificial scare about “Ukrainian neo-Nazis.”
Attempts to ascribe anti-Semitism to the new democratically-elected government or to Ukrainian civil society are an important part of Russian propaganda, used to legitimate Russian aggression. The results of a professional hate crime monitoring program that we are holding together with our partners imply that a number of anti-Semitic incidents in 2014 might have been committed as acts of provocation. The “hybrid war” that Russia is waging against us implies that many crimes are being committed only to become an element of the information war.
In this context, unfortunately, we cannot exclude the possibility that certain Jewish institutions or members of the community might become victims of such anti-Semitic acts. Moreover, as the aggressor has intensified irregular warfare, the Jewish community infrastructure might also be targeted by terrorist attacks.
The Jewish community stands together with the Ukrainians against Russian aggression. This angers the occupants and their puppets in occupied territories. The formal leaders of the terrorist groups “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Lugansk People’s Republic,” which are in fact controlled from Moscow, make no effort to hide their anti-Semitic views and spread rumors of the “Jewish government in Kyiv,” hoping to awaken and employ anti-Semitic sentiment against the new Ukraine.
In the situation as it stands, the most important way to reduce the probability of anti-Semitic incidents and to ensure the safety of the Jewish community lies through stopping Russian aggression.
All of civilized mankind, and the Jewish community as its part, is threatened today by terrorism that is challenging such contemporary values as humanism, pluralism, and democracy. The so-called “Islamic state” and structures connected to it threaten Jewish communities around the world. Ukraine is also fighting a war on its own turf against extremist organizations and their ideology that has no regard for humanity, who are supported by a neighboring country that can in this context be called a state sponsor of terrorism. The Jewish community cannot remain on the sidelines of this conflict — especially since the Jews are a potential target for terrorists.
We ask for your understanding and call for your aid in our struggle. This is a battle we fight together, for the sake of the democratic civilized world against the aggression and terror of authoritarian, non-democratic states.