In Ukraine, Jews embrace their double identity

The Jewish Museum of Odesa, opened in 2002 by the Jewish community centre Migdal. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/Joseph Roche)

Despite Russian propaganda claiming that neo-nazis are running Ukraine, around 43,000 Jews still live in Ukraine and are taking an active role in fighting against Russia’s invasion. 

Before World War II, the current territory of Ukraine hosted one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. But historically, Jews in Ukraine, under the Russian empire and Soviet Ukraine, never felt Ukrainian. Yet, this has been changing throughout Ukraine's reform process and even more so with the Russian aggression.

Zvi Blinder, beadle of Odesa's synagogue, told Geneva Solutions that reunification between Ukrainians and Jews was not that easy.  The foundations of Ukrainian nationalism have been laid by controversial figures for jews, such as Bogdan Khmelnitsky or Stepan Bandera.

Ukrainian historiography sees the roots of the Ukrainian nation in the 17th century Khmelnitsky revolts that killed between 50,000 and 100,000 Jews. Along the Holocaust, this massacre is one of the most traumatic events for eastern European Jews. One can also mention how Ukrainian nationalist groups, such as the SS Galicia, played a role in the Holocaust by coordinating mass shootings alongside Nazis.

“Yet, we shall not look too much into the past. What happened happened,” said Blinder. “And now we have to look at the future.”

Blinder, long grey beard, was born into a secular family and turned to orthodox Judaism after serving during the Afghanistan war.

Zvi Blinder.JPG
Zvi Blinder, beadle of Odesa's synagogue. (Credit: Geneva Solutions/Joseph Roche)

“The truth is, we have been better off since Ukrainian independence (1991). We have our freedom, and we, as Jews, are active in society,” he observed.

“During Soviet times, you had a lot of state antisemitism and quotas for Jews to go to university. It was even hard for Jews to circumcise their sons here in Odesa. You had to go to Uzbekistan, which was tolerated because of Islam. Since the Ukrainian independence, antisemitism almost disappeared, and Jews were considered full citizens. We even have a Jewish president, and the former prime minister (Volodymyr Groysman, ed.) was also Jewish. Not even the US ever had a Jewish president.”

Blinder explained that Jews don't even have problems with extreme right organisations in Ukraine. Once, the synagogue, according to Blinder, was tagged with nazi swastikas, and the head of the movement washed it away and apologised.

“Antisemitism, like elsewhere, exists in Ukraine, but it's not a significant trend,“ he said. This statement is confirmed by the Pew Research Center in 2018, which highlighted that Ukraine is the less antisemitic country in Eastern Europe, far behind Hungary, Poland, and Russia. Moreover, in 2020, the United Jewish Community of Ukraine monitored 49 cases of direct antisemitism in Ukraine, compared to 339  in France, which has a more significant Jewish community, according to the local Jewish Community Security Service.

Blinder is now highly active in helping refugees, Jews, and non-Jews settle in Odesa and is not planning to leave to Israel, where he has many relatives. The Jewish community also charts vans to take refugees from Odesa to Germany and Romania, where many have families. “It's funny,” said Blinder, smiling with irony. “During World War II, Jews were fleeing fascists from Germany and Romania to Russia and Ukraine; now it's the opposite.”

While Jews only started to feel Ukrainian after the independence, Euromaidan in 2013 was the watershed, explained Ihor, a young Jewish activist from Kyiv. “The older Jewish generation may consider itself part of Ruskymir (the Russian world - ed.). However, things are shifting among youth,” he said. “We grew up in an independent Ukraine, and especially as secular Jews, we always felt Ukrainians no matter what.”

Ihor noted that his Ukrainian awakening is no different from many other Ukrainians. Before Maidan, he grew up in a Russian-speaking and cultural environment, speaking only Ukrainian with his grandmother. “I was only listening to Russian media, reading Russian literature, and studying Russian history; I did not know much about Ukraine. Everything changed after Maidan, and I started to learn more about Ukraine and Jews in Ukraine,” he said.

Ihor emigrated to Israel to pursue his studies in Tel-Aviv. He admitted that since the war started he has felt guilty and was trying to help as much as he could from there. “Above all, what I did, when the war started, was to clean all my social media and youtube from pro-Russian and Russian-speaking media,” he said.

Today, in Israel, many Russian-speaking Jews actively support Ukraine and many Israeli soldiers joined Ukraine’s foreign legion. “I want to go back home,” said Ihor. “I want to be helpful and help with the skills I have learned in Israel, to help rebuild and strengthen Ukraine.”