During a Dec. 4 Zoom lecture organized by Kolot Mayim Reform Temple in Victoria, historian Elissa Bemporad offered a nuanced look at the Jewish experience in Ukraine, as well as perspective on the Russian invasion of Ukraine
“It was a history marked significantly more by coexistence between Jews and non-Jews than it was by violence,” said Bemporad, a professor at Queens College and CUNY Graduate Centre in New York City. “I am saying this not only in response to the genocidal war that Russia has launched in Ukraine, justifying it by manipulating the past and demonizing Ukrainians as quintessentially violent. We should resist the view of the Jewish experience in the region, as tragic as it might have been, as if it was doomed from the very beginning and enveloped in perpetual violence.”
The current war, she underscored, has brought about the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War, with cities destroyed and civilian populations terrorized. “The aim of this war seems to be putting an end to Ukrainian sovereignty and identity,” she said. “As a historian, one of the most painful moments was reading about how the Russian occupiers were seizing and destroying books. As Jewish historians, we know all too well what happens when a society destroys books.”
Showing images of the destruction of Jewish buildings in Ukraine, such as a synagogue in Mariupol and the Hillel building in Kharkhiv, Bemporad spoke to the irony of one of Russia’s stated goals of the conflict: to rid the country of Nazis. Most of the Jews in these bombed-out cities have left, she said, and there is uncertainty as to whether they will return; many have either fled to Israel or settled in the West.
Bemporad discussed the pre-Second World War period, when 1.5 million Jews lived in what is today Ukraine, the largest community being in Kyiv, where 226,000 Jews resided, or one-third of the city’s population. Addressing the anti-Jewish violence in the region, she spoke about – among other uprisings, dating back to the 17th century – the Russian Civil War (1918-21) and the resulting atrocities committed against the Jewish population by both military units and the civilian population. Many of the pogroms took place in Ukraine and tens of thousands of Jews were killed.
“Jews were thought of as interlopers in the national body and imagined as forces connected to Bolshevism that would tear apart the nation’s fabric,” Bemporad said. “The fact that Trotsky was the leader of the Red Army did not play in favour of the Jews.”
But Bemporad highlighted a history of coexistence as well, stories in which some Ukrainians heroically stepped in to save the life of Jews, notably the writer Rakhel Feygenberg, who, along with her infant son, was hidden by non-Jews during a 1919 pogrom.
About the post-First World War era, she noted the ambivalentattitude the Soviet state had toward antisemitism. “While the state condemned antisemitism on paper, it was often eager to ignore antisemitism or to weaponize it in its best interest,” she said. “With regard to the pogroms, the Soviets shifted between acknowledging and downplaying the anti-Jewish violence. They were ambiguous in their treatment of the Jews, and they were the ambiguous in their treatment of the perpetrators, creating a state-controlled memory. However, when the discussion of the pogroms was perceived as at odds with the regime’s interests and priorities of building socialism based on the brotherhood of peoples, then the memory of anti-Jewish violence was silenced and the Soviets preferred not to investigate and punish the perpetrators.”
In other examples, she said the Soviets would use antisemitism among Ukrainians as a means to demonstrate they were prone to nationalism. And both Ukraine and Russia have provided recent examples of reviving the memories of and glorifying national heroes who were responsible for carrying out pogroms.
In a final slide, Bemporad displayed the results of a Pew Research Centre survey on antisemitism in Europe. Despite Russia’s attempts to portray Ukraine as a hotbed of antisemitism, more Russians had an unfavourable opinion of Jews than Ukrainians. And, in Bemporad’s view, Ukraine, despite its corruption, has become the most democratic of the post-Soviet states, excluding the Baltic countries. Further, as has often been mentioned in referring to the present situation of Jews in Ukraine, the country elected a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, with more than 73% of the vote.
“Siding with Ukraine today does not entail dismissing or forgetting the dark pages of anti-Jewish violence in the region,” Bemporad said. “It is rather a reminder that we can start turning those pages and writing new ones in the book of the Jews of Ukraine.”
Bemporad, a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award, is the author of Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk and Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets. She is the co-editor of two volumes: Women and Genocide: Survivors, Victims, Perpetrators and Pogroms: A Documentary History.
The next speaker in Kolot Mayim’s Building Bridges series will be Sari Shernofsky, a retired community chaplain from the Calgary Jewish community, on Stories from the Narrow Bridge: Meeting People in Their Time of Need. She will speak on Jan. 8, 11 a.m. Visit kolotmayimreformtemple.com.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
At the Freilach 25 gala on June 19, left to right, are Yocheved Baitelman, Chanie Baitelman, Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, Natan Sharansky and Avital Sharansky. (photo by Kasselman Creatives)
Natan Sharansky, the most famous “Prisoner of Zion” and a former Israeli senior cabinet minister, shared reflections on his extraordinary life with a Vancouver audience last month.
Sharansky spoke June 19 at the Freilach 25 gala honouring Rabbi Yechiel and Chanie Baitelman on the 25th anniversary of their leadership of Chabad of Richmond. The event took place at Schara Tzedeck Synagogue.
Born in 1948 – the same year as the state of Israel – Sharansky was, like most Jews in the officially atheist Soviet Union, utterly disconnected from his Judaism. There was no brit milah, no bar mitzvah, no Jewish culture, language or tradition, he said – “What there was, was antisemitism.”
There were about 150 nationalities in the sprawling Soviet Union, each one of them identified on the fifth line of the official state identification issued to every citizen. Everyone, regardless of ethnic origin, was treated relatively equally, if not fairly, under the communist regime, with one exception. If someone said, “He has a fifth-line problem” or “the fifth-line disease,” it meant they were a Jew and, therefore, had more limited opportunities for advancement than members of the other national groups, said Sharansky.
While they had only the vaguest idea of what being a Jew meant – “There was nothing positive in this word ‘Jew,’” he said – his parents instilled in him the need to overcome the officially proscribed handicap through excellence.
“You must be the best at chess or music or whatever you’re doing,” they told him, “the best in your class, your school, your city.”
Sharansky – then called Anatoly – was 5 years old when Stalin died (on Purim). At the time, the so-called “doctor’s plot,” a Stalinist campaign to whip up antisemitism based on allegations that Jews were trying to assassinate Soviet leaders, was approaching a climax. Boris Sharansky told his two sons that the dictator’s demise was a good thing, but that they must not let on to others that they believed this.
Back at school, young Anatoly mimicked his fellow kindergarteners.
“We are crying together with all the other kids,” he said. “We are singing songs about the great leader.… You have no idea how many children are really crying and how many children are crying because their fathers told them to do it.”
This was Sharansky’s first conscious awareness of “doublethink,” the phenomenon in which Soviet citizens learned to compartmentalize what they knew from what they were supposed to know.
“You are reading what you’re supposed to read, you’re saying what you’re supposed to say, you are voting as everybody votes and you know that this is all a lie,” he recalled.
For Jews of his generation, the deracination from their heritage changed in 1967.
“The Six Day War was a big humiliation for the Soviet Union,” he said. “They had thrown in their lot with the Arabs.”
While the seemingly miraculous Israeli victory over the combined neighbouring Arab armies was notable, it didn’t change the perceptions of Soviet Jews overnight. It didn’t, for example, distract the young from their studies for university exams.
“But, over time, some things changed,” Sharansky said. “Those that loved you and those that hate you” changed their attitudes, he said. “They all look at you and say, ‘How did you Jews do it?’” Jews were upgraded, Sharansky has written. “We went from greedy, cowardly parasites to greedy, bullying hooligans.”
Soviet Jews did not consider themselves part of Israel, but at least some of their non-Jewish neighbours did. This sparked a new curiosity among Soviet Jews about their connection to Jews outside their realm and kindled pride in their identity for the first time.
Soon, smuggled copies of Leon Uris’s 1958 historical novel Exodus, about the founding of the state of Israel, found its way into circulation. The forbidden book was passed from hand to hand, not only because it was a page-turner, but because it was not the kind of book a Jew in the Soviet Union wanted sitting around the house.
Sharansky realized that the soldiers in Israel who had defeated the Arabs in 1967 were the same age as him.
“Suddenly, the university exams didn’t look so significant,” he recalled. So began a quest for identity and dissidence that would lead Sharansky to nine years in a Soviet prison, then, later, to nine years as a senior figure in Israel’s government and, later still, nine years as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
As Jews in the Soviet Union gained consciousness about their identity – and began their “treasonous” demands to abandon the communist state for Israel – they ignited a parallel and larger fight against Soviet tyranny. In his presentation, and more deeply in his book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Gil Troy, Sharansky explained how he struggled with whether his fight was for his right to fully express his particular Jewish identity or whether it was a larger battle to free the millions of oppressed Soviets of all 150 or so nationalities.
At the same time, international solidarity that had begun as a tiny rally of Columbia University students in 1964 exploded into a massive global movement calling for the Soviets to free both “Prisoners of Zion” – those Jews imprisoned in gulags for openly confronting the Soviet powers – and the millions more Jews in the Soviet Union who were not free to leave the country.
As the Soviets grew more concerned about this international attention, they responded in two ways. They permitted some Jews to make aliyah – particularly middling troublemakers they preferred not to deal with – while imprisoning leaders like Sharansky, who soon became the leading face in the fight to free Soviet Jewry.
If Anatoly Sharanasky – who would rename himself Natan as his Jewishness evolved – was the face of the movement, his imprisonment required a voice to take up the mantle. This role was adopted by his wife, Natasha, who herself would become Avital as she, too, reconnected with her identity. As Avital Sharansky sat in the audience at Schara Tzedeck last month, her husband recounted her meetings with world leaders, Jewish community officials and anyone who would listen to her demands to free her husband.
Before being thrust into the roles of world-leading activists, Natasha and Anatoly – Avital and Natan – had a one-day honeymoon. They were hastily married and the next day she flew to Israel, not sure whether the Soviets would soon rescind her exit visa. She began her lobbying while he continued the activism that led him, three years later, to be sentenced to death by shooting for “high treason.”
Jews all over the world demonstrated, including a 250,000-person march on Washington in 1987. Soviet ambassadors in Western capitals were called in to explain their treatment of Jewish citizens. The U.S. Congress passed an amendment to a trade law, tying Jewish emigration and broader human rights issues to economic ties with the Soviets.
A Toronto man, Noah Landis (né Lantsevitsky), saw Sharansky on the news and did a little genealogy. Discovering a family connection, he contacted Irwin Cotler, Sharansky’s Canadian lawyer and later Canada’s minister of justice, who was able to go to then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau and demand that the government stand up for this relative of Canadian citizens being held hostage for his identity.
The ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev, with his liberalization programs of “glasnost” and “perestroika,” put the treatment of Soviet Jews further into the spotlight. In 1985, then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan met with Gorbachev in Geneva. At one point, Avital Sharansky, dressed in a prisoner’s uniform, accosted Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet leader, asking for her intervention. In private, Reagan demanded Gorbachev act on Sharansky’s case and, three months later, Sharansky was released, the first of the Prisoners of Zion to gain freedom. The day he was released from prison, Sharansky was stripped of his Soviet citizenship and flown to East Berlin, transported across to West Berlin and on to Israel, where he ended the very long day dancing at the Western Wall.
Sharansky’s attendance in Vancouver was to mark the quarter-century of commitment Rabbi Yechiel and Chanie Baitelman and their family have made to the B.C. community as Chabad shlichim in Richmond.
The rabbi said he felt “embarrassed and inadequate” at the recognition, saying, “Serving this community is not some great burden. It is in fact the greatest privilege imaginable.”
Baitelman spoke of the exponential growth Chabad of Richmond has seen in 25 years, including a huge increase in the number of educational programs delivered, meals prepared and shared, and youth activities, Hebrew classes and outreach programs initiated. The model of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe is one they try to emulate, said Baitelman.
“This is what we try to do – to ignite the soul of every Jew with the love of Torah, the love of Judaism and a passion for our Jewish traditions so that each person can realize their unique potential and fulfil the purpose for which he or she was created,” said the rabbi.
Chabad of Richmond is bursting at the seams, he said, and has begun a campaign to relocate to larger premises. On a personal level, Baitelman said he and his wife are not slowing down.
“We have no intentions of resting on our laurels, not for a minute,” he said. “Our work is only just beginning. Chanie and I pledge to work even harder, to grow this organization, to bolster our acts of chesed on behalf of this community, to increase the number of programs we have to offer.”
Shelley Civkin and Gayle Morris co-chaired the event. Steve Whiteside, president of Chabad of Richmond, welcomed guests, while his vice-president, Ed Lewin, offered closing remarks. Mark and Yolanda Babins introduced the keynote speaker.
הישג ישראלי: ‘איי.טו.זד’ מדורגת בין עשר חברות הטכנולוגיות של בורסת טורונטו
החברה הישראלית לעגלות סופרמרקט חכמות ‘איי.טו זד’ התברגה בין עשרת החברות הטכנולוגיות המובילות בבורסה הקנדית. החברה נכנסה לרשימת המדדים המובילים בבורסה בזכות ביצועיה האיכותיים מאוד
קבוצת הטכנולוגיה הישראלית – חברת הטכנולוגיות החכמות ‘איי.טו.זד’ יכולה לרשום לעצמה הישג משמעותי נוסף, בענף העגלות החכמות, עם כניסתה לממד החמישים של חברות בינלאומיות מובילות, של הבורסה לניירות ערך בטורונטו שבקנדה. על חמישים החברות נמנות אלה שיש להן ביצועים איכותיים יוצאי דופן בחמישיה מגזרים עיקריים: טכנולוגיה, אנרגיה, תעשייה, כרייה ומדעי החיים. וזאת על פי על פי מספר קריטריונים שעליהם נמנים: צמיחת החברה ביחס לענף שלו היא שייכת, וכן ביצועי המניה של החברה בשנה האחרונה
בנוסף למסחר בבורסה לניירות ערך של טורונטו חברת הטכנולוגיות החכמות ‘איי.טו.זד’ נסחרת במקביל גם בבורסת ‘נסד”ק’ האמריקנית, שמיועדת לחברות היי טק טוכנולוגיה. ‘איי.טו.זד’ זוכה אפוא להמלצות קנייה חמות וטובות לאור איכות המוצרה שלה – העגלות החכמות
חברת הטכנולוגיות החכמות ‘איי.טו.זד’ שממציאה ומפתחת פתרונות חדישים לאתגרים מורכבים שונים, היא זו שעומדת מאחורי העגלה החכמה. בשלב זה העגלה החכמה היא מוצר הדגל שלה והוא זוכה לחשיפה גדולה. מדובר במוצר המתקדם מסוגו בעולם בשלב זה. העגלה החכמה מתפקדת גם כקופה עצמאית לכל דבר, וכן יש לה אף מסך מגע ומערכת ראייה ממוחשבת. העגלה החכמה שנקראת ‘קסטומייט’ מייעלת את חוות הקנייה על ידי שימוש באלגוריתם חכם והיא נחשבת מאוד ידידותית למשתמש. בעזרת העגלה שיש, לה מסך מגע ומערכת ראייה ממוחשבת, אפשר לסרוק את המוצרים שנרכשו וכן יש אף אפשרות לשלם באמצעותה. וחאיר כן יכולים הקונים לעקוף פשוט את התור הארוך בקופה ולצאת עם העגלה החוצה. או רק עם המוצרים שנרכשו. ובכך נחסך זמן רב מצדם של הקונים שכידוע בדרך כלל מתלוננים על התורים הארוכים בקופות. כן נחסך כוח אדם רב, בזמן שלמנהלי החנויות יש שליטה ובקרה מלאים על כל התהליך של הרכישה והמכירה
העגלה החכמה ‘קסטומייט’ מאפשרת למנהלי החנויות להפעיל גם פרסום ממוקד למי שמשתמש בה, כולל שיווק ישיר וכן מבצעים מיוחדים. כך שהכנסות חנויות יכולות לעלות בזמן ששהוצאות שלהן יקטנו שמעותית
לדברי מנכ”ל פרוייקט ‘קסטומייט’ של חברת הטכנולוגיות החכמות ‘איי.טו.זד’, רפי ים, העגלה החכמה נמצאית בתהליכי שיפור מתמיד, מבחינת החומרה והתוכנה. זאת כדי להשיג פתרונות משלימים, אפלקציות ויכולות שונות שיתנו ערך מוסף ללקוחות, לחנויות ולמשקיעים בחברה הנסחרת בבורסאות כאמור של טורונטו ‘ונסד”ק’ האמריקנית. ים מוסיף כי פלטפורמת העגלה החכמה ‘קסטומייט’ תופץ ותשווק בחנויות שונות בכל רחבי העולם. ים מציין עוד שהחברה גאה להיות בימים אלה חלק ממדד החברות האיכותיות של בורסת טורונטו שבקנדה
הישג קנדי: ביקושי ענק לדגנים ותבואות מכל העולם
המלחמה הבלתי נתפסת של נשיא רוסיה, ולדימיר פוטין, באוקראינה המיסכנה, שינתה משמעותית את מפת אספקת הסחורות העולמית. רבים במערב לא האמינו שפוטין הדיקטטור יחרחר מלחמה ברמה כזו ויחליט שיום אחד הוא רוצה לחסל את אוקראינה על תושביה. מקביל מדינות המערב בהן קנדה יעשו מעט עבור אוקראינה וזה מצער
ולפיכך משבר חמור זה יצר מחסור עולמי גדול בדגנים ותבואות, בין היתר כיוון שרוסיה מקשה על אוקראינה ליצא חיטה באמצעות חסימת המעבר בים השחור. רוסיה עצמה אף נתקלת במחסומים קשים ביותר לייצא את החיטה שלה, לאור הסנקציות הכלכליות הקשות שהוטלו עליה מצד מדינות המערב השונות. המרוויחה הגדולה מכך היא קנדה שהפכה לספקית חילופית טובה למדינות רבות בעולם
העולם מגיע לקנדה לאור המשבר הארוך הזה, וקנדה מצידה שולחת דגנים ותבואות של החקלאים המקומיים לכמאה ועשרים מדינות שונות. על רשימת המדינות שפנו לאחרונה לקנדה לקבל את התוצרת החקלאית שלה נמנות: טורקיה, אלגי’ריה, תוניסיה וברזיל. במקביל מדינות אחרות שלא סובלות בשלב זה ממחסור ביבולים השונים, פונות כל הזמן לקנדה ומבקשות להגדיל את היבוא החקלאי. זאת, כדי לבסס את מאגרים שלהן לשעת חירום כי כידוע משברים לא חסרים בעולם: מגיפת הקוביד, פגעי אקלים שונים, סיכסוך ומתיחות בין מדינות שונות ועוד ועוד
ההתחממות הגלובלית העולמית לא פוסחת על קנדה וגם היא יוצאת נפסדת מכך משמעותית ביותר. הבצורת הקשה בקנדה בשנה שעברה, פגעה קשה ביצוא של חיטה וקנולה למדינות העולם השונות. בשלב זה קשה לקנדה לסגור את החוזים בהיקפים שהיא רגילה להם. זה יקרה רק אם אספקה של היבולים השונים תחזור לרמות הרגילות בשנה הנוכחית
בנוסף למשבר הגלובלי הנוכחי שנולד ממלחמתה הקשה של רוסיה באוקראינה, גם מגפת הקוביד הנמשכת כבר כשנתיים ויותר “עזרה” ליצור שיבושים קשים באפסקת סחורות בכל רחבי העולם. עתה מכולות ריקות במספר גדול מאוד נשלחות לסין כדי לסייע בסגירת העיכובים באספקה, שנוצרו במהלת המגיפה. לכן מובילי דגנים קנדיים מתקשים להשיג מכולות להעביר את סחורותיהם למדינות שונות ברחבי העולם
חרף האתגרים הקשים הללו, קנדה ויצרני הסחורות והחקלאים שלה עדיין נמצאים בעמדת יתרון. מחירי הנפט והאשלג הגואים כל הזמן הגדילו את הרווחים וסייעו באיזון התקציב הציבורי של קנדה. מחוז אלברטה שבמערב המדינה, שרוב הכנסותיו מגיעות מתעשיית הנפט והגז, צופה עודף תקציבי בשנה הפיסקאלית הנוכחית, לראשונה זה שמונה שנים. זאת לאחר שנים של מיתון קשה באלברטה, שגרם לרבים להפוך למובטלים ובמקביל חברות רבות בתחום האנרגיה הפסיקו את פעילותן במחוז
לאחר המחסור הגדול בנפט בעיקר בגלל הסנקציות הכלכליות שהופנו כנגד רוסיה, הסכימה קנדה כמו ארה”ב, להגדיל משמעותית את יצור משלוחי הגז הטבעי והנפט שלה. מדובר על גידול ביצור של כמאתיים אלף חביות נפט ביום, וכן גידול ביצור של כמאה אלף חביות גז טבעי ביום
במדינות המערב סוף סוף הגיעו למסקנה שיש “להיגמל” מרכישת אנרגיה מרוסיה, שנחשבת ליצואנית הנפט והגז הגדולה ביותר למדינות ביבשת אירופה. המשבר הנוכחי עם הרוסים מויח שוב ושוב, שכדאי ואף מומלץ למערב לנתק כל תלות ברוסים. השאלה המשמעותית עתה כי כמה זמן זה יקח למדינות אירופה השונות ובעיקרן גרמניה, למצוא תחליפים לנפט ולגז של הרוסים
קנדה נחשבת לאחת מיצרניות האשלגן הגדולות בעולם. חברת נוטריין הקנדית שהיא יצרנית האשלגן הגדולה בעולם, הגדילה רק לאחרונה את הייוצר שלה בעשרה אחוזים לרגל פניות רבות מברזיל
השר למשאבי הטבע בממשלה הפדרלית הליברלית, ג’ונתן ווילקינסון, מציין כי כי גורמים רשמיים מטעם מדינות שונות פנו אליו במהלך כנס סוכנות האנרגיה הבינלאומית ,שנערך לאחרונה בפריז, כדי לבחון היתכנות להחלפת האשלג, אורניום וסחורות חקלאיות רוסיות, בקנדיות. במהלך הפסגה הבינלאומית אמר ווילקינסון, כי קנדה, שהיא הרביעית בגודלה בעולם מבחינת עתודות נפט, תוכל להגדיל בהדרגה את המשלוחים בשלוש מאות אלף חביות ביום. בנוסף גם יצרנית האורניום הגדולה במדינה ‘קמקו’ (בסיסה במחוז סיסקצ’ואן) צפויה להגדיל את ייצור האורניום במכרות שלה, בקנדה ובארה”ב. ‘קמקו’ הנחשבת ליצרנית האורניום השנייה בגודל בעולם, מפיקה כשמונה עשר אחוז מכמות האורניום שבעולם
במסגרת הסנקציות נגד רוסיה, הודיעה קנדה לאחרונה כי היא מטילה סנקציות נגד האוליגרך רוסי-ישראלי, ויקטור וקלסברג, הנחשב למקורב לפוטין
The Masorti synagogue in Chernivtsi Ukraine has become a refuge for Ukrainians fleeing the war. Its new aron kodesh, built by grateful refugees, has become a symbol of the partnership being forged between small, out-of-the-way communities and those fleeing for safety. (photo from Schechter Institutes Inc.)
As the war in Ukraine continues, educational and religious organizations that helped support the country’s fledgling Jewish communities are finding they have a new mandate these days: to help the millions of refugees that have been left homeless by the Russian invasion.
More than 12 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine, eight million of whom are internally displaced. According to a May 5 report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, most of those affected are women and children. In many cases, the refugees have either lost family members in the bombings or have been separated from loved ones. A significant number are struggling to find shelter, food and resources.
Schechter Institutes Inc. president Rabbi David Golinkin told the Independent that synagogues and Jewish day schools have become refuges for Jews and non-Jews alike in recent months. The institute’s educational program, Midreshet Schechter Ukraine, which partners with Masorti Olami, provides funding and educational services for Conservative communities in Ukraine. Golinkin said three of the four Masorti (Conservative) synagogues are located in regions that have been hit by bombing, including in Kyiv, where Schechter had just opened a facility in January.
Golinkin said the two nonprofits had spent more than a year finalizing the purchase of a building that would be big enough to house a sanctuary, as well as a full array of youth programs and services. Two weeks after purchasing the property, however, Russia invaded Ukraine, forcing the community to suspend the opening. As Russian troops advanced toward Kyiv, community members were urged to leave the city. Some congregants sought refuge at the Masorti synagogue in Chernivtsi, near the Romanian border, while others headed out of the country to Poland, Moldova or Romania.
Three months into the war, the Chernivtsi synagogue, tucked away in southern Ukraine, has become known for its hospitality toward those fleeing the conflict. A steady flow of refugees fills the city every day, many turning up at the Masorti facility looking for a bed or a meal. Others head to the Chabad House located nearby. Golinkin said the two organizations have learned to work together, and will refer refugees to the other community when their own facility is full. No one is turned away, whether they are Jewish or not.
Schechter and Masorti Olami also work with partners across Western Europe, Israel and North America to help Ukrainians who are seeking refuge outside of the country. Rabbi Irina Gritsevskaya, who serves as the executive director for the educational programs of Midreshet Schechter and oversees programs in Ukraine, said hundreds of refugees have relocated to Israel, Berlin and other places with the help of Masorti congregations across Europe. She said the most moving example was the rescue of a teenage boy from eastern Ukraine whose parents had died. Volunteers made the 1,000-kilometre trip through war zones to bring him to Chernivtsi.
“[It] was a terrifying experience for him,” Gritsevskaya said, “since it took three days without basically sleeping or eating [to reach Chernivtsi]. Finally, with a lot of help from the Israeli government, we managed to bring him [to Israel].” She said he seems happy with his new home and his new school. “He always wanted to come to Israel,” she said.
Cities in eastern Ukraine are still hemorrhaging populations, driven by the escalating war in border cities and villages. Yuri Radchenko, who leads the Masorti synagogue in Kharkiv, is the director and co-founder of the Centre for Inter-Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe, a think tank of researchers who specialize in Eastern European and Jewish history. He said most of the members of his small synagogue were able to flee the city. A few chose to remain behind.
“Some teachers [have] elderly parents who are … unable to move from the city,” said Radchenko. He estimates that 30-50% of Kharkiv’s two million residents escaped before the Russians captured parts of the city, which has been heavily damaged from Russian shelling. Many residents sought cover for months in Kharkiv’s fortified subway and other makeshift shelters. Recent estimates suggest at least a quarter of Kharkiv’s residential housing has been destroyed, along with crucial infrastructure.
Still, Radchenko said many who fled the country hope that they may one day be able to return home. “People understand that it is hard to make a change,” he said, noting that immigrating to another country often means starting at a lower employment level in an unfamiliar culture. He speculated that some residents will follow the example of other postwar populations and return to rebuild their city if Ukraine wins the war. And, indeed, many of the residents who sought shelter in Kharkiv’s underground shelters are gradually returning home to repair their apartments and clean up the rubble.
Radchenko said he can empathize with them. Much of his own work was put on hold when he was forced to flee. “I would come back to Kharkiv,” he said definitively. “[If] I could move back, I would not wait. I think I would visit to see how it looks like, but I would come back if my apartment and the district where it’s located were safe.”
For now, Schechter and Masorti are taking the long view of the war. Russia’s continuing attacks mean increased risk to civilian populations, more refugees on the run and more uncertainty. The conflict also means an even greater need to bolster resources at the Chernivtsi synagogue, so that Jews can continue to come and pray, learn and find a good kosher meal there, and refugees can find support. But Schechter and Masorti know that a significant number of Jewish communities in Ukraine will need to be rebuilt. And that will take both time and money.
Schechter’s director of development Michal Makov-Peled said the Cantors Assembly will be hosting an hour-long telethon of music and stories on June 12 to raise money for Schechter and Masorti Olami’s emergency campaign. She said the funds will go toward assisting Jewish communities in Ukraine, as well as increasing support for refugees, which is expected to be an ongoing need, for now.
“We have 11 apartments that we are renting [to refugees in Chernivtsi],” Makov-Peled said, adding that they also distribute food to Jewish communities in Kyiv and Odessa, where residents are slowly returning, but which have been economically impacted by the conflict.
In Chernivtsi, communities are also finding rhythm and a new way of life. Some are exploring ways to expand the small synagogue’s services, others want to pay back the generosity they have been shown. Gritsevskaya said the synagogue now has a new aron kodesh (ark) to house its Torah, built by grateful visitors who saw a need. “Many aren’t members of the Chernivtsi community, but were just passing through,” said Gritsevskaya.
The June 12 Cantors Assembly performance, Mivtza Ukraine, will be aired around the world on YouTube and Facebook. To make a donation or for more information, log on to cantors.org/mivtzaukraine.
Jan Leeis an award-winning editorial writer whose articles and op-eds have been published in B’nai B’rith Magazine, Voices of Conservative and Masorti Judaism and Baltimore Jewish Times, as well as a number of business, environmental and travel publications. Her blog can be found at multiculturaljew.polestarpassages.com.
A friend described to me once what Warsaw looked like in the aftermath of the Second World War. A small boy then, he remembered vividly the ripped apartment buildings, whole sides of buildings missing. When you raised your head, he said, you could see a bed up there, one leg hanging over the precipice, the chimney, a chair stuck in half fall. The lives turned into ruins and exposed.
The “noble” war, as Russian President Vladimir Putin calls it, has killed thousands. Other thousands have been taken into filtration camps by Russians. The war has uprooted the lives of millions. It has separated wives from husbands, children from fathers. It has laid bare what is usually concealed from the eyes of a stranger: human attachments and loves, support for one another and acts of kindness. But also, the seismic faults running through so many families; their discontents, their arguments, and the way they cope with them in the time of crises.
Inadvertently, I became privy to the lives of many simply because I happened to be there at the time of their great vulnerability and need. Those I met (and, with rare exceptions, these were women with children) were going through the horrors and desolation of war. All, without exception, were traumatized. All needed practical help, advice, information and, above all, empathy.
But what they also needed, I discovered, was to talk about what they had gone through. That need was spontaneous and raw. They broke into stories easily and without invitation on my part. Each story was different, yet many followed the similar pattern: destruction and loss of property or homes; weeks in basements with scarce water, food supplies and electricity; the howl of air raid sirens; separation from loved ones and concern about their well-being; screams of traumatized children; and, then, finally evacuation, finally escape, over many days. Escape on foot, by trains, buses or sometimes cars, with detours necessitated by rockets and missiles; crossing rivers on boats where bridges were blown up.
I heard repeated gratitude to Ukrainian volunteers who facilitated the escapes, relaying families from one safe place to another; informing about the dangers on the way and how to bypass them. I heard stories of churches that sheltered families overnight; of people harbouring strangers in their homes; of volunteers who organized food that awaited fleeing families at different points of their long and hazardous journey to safety. I learned a new word – humanitarka, meaning clothing (and perhaps food) that poured into Ukraine from the West as humanitarian aid.
And I heard stories of the brutality of Russian soldiers towards civilians. I heard stories of looting, torture and rape. I heard stories of Russian soldiers leaving villages and shooting in their wake every cow, every chicken, so that the owners would be left with nothing; gratuitously smashing all the preservatives Ukrainians traditionally prepare for winter. I heard how Russian soldiers pretended they would allow villagers to run to safety, only to shoot them in their legs, and finish them off later like hunted animals. I heard stories of booby-trapped corpses, of Russians abandoning their dead.
In the two-and-a-half weeks I volunteered with the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) at a border crossing and in a refugee shelter several kilometres away from the Polish border with Ukraine, I met people of all walks of life – I met the Ukrainian Nation.
I met a grandmother who escaped missiles with her six grandchildren and made it to Poland while the parents of the children had perished.
I met a man, a welder, looking after his old and infirm mother. They couldn’t possibly live with any family, the man explained, because his mother became psychotic and incontinent, and he regularly had to clean up after her. The welder was now trying to bring to Poland his former wife with her new husband and their three children, one of whom was his.
I met 60 elderly Baptists from Zaporizhzhia who were on the way to Amsterdam, where a sister Baptist church was going to shelter them. Zaporizhshia is the site of the largest atomic plant in Europe and it had been overtaken by Russian soldiers. It’s the city where my relatives live. Talking to these refugees, I realized that my aunt had been concealing the truth from me all along: the rockets are falling 10 kilometres away from the city.
I discovered that the most painful subject and the last thing that came up in conversations was the fact that women had had to leave their loved ones behind. The worry for their soldier sons and husbands, their parents, grandparents and siblings, was a deeply hidden, yet constant, heartbreak. It was a breaking point for many. I will not forget those eyes, dozens and dozens of women’s eyes: blue, grey, greenish; eyes magnified by tears at the thought of the separation from loved ones. When a collective image of Ukraine comes to my mind, it’s women’s eyes. Embarrassed to cry in front of me, a stranger, they tried to look away. The older sister would often say to the younger, “Enough already, just stop it!” while breaking into tears herself.
Another move that caused tears was my offering of money to refugees, the generous donations that I had received while I was still in Vancouver. In Canada, I had packed lots of envelopes to put the money into, for a civilized handout. How naïve I was! In the chaos of a refugee centre, it was quickly handing over money from hands to hands. A scared look and the initial refusal to accept was universal. I had to come up with some strategy to overcome the mutual embarrassment. “This is not my money,” I would say. “This is from Canadian friends, people like you. Canadians care about you. They want to help you. But they can’t be here. They asked me to do it for them. Please take it.” A grateful look. Tears. A hug.
The refugee centre was a temporary shelter. Refugees could spend several nights there and then move on: to some city, some country.
The vast majority of the refugees I met were determined to return home once the war was over. But they had made it to Poland and many would have liked to stay there while the war was raging. Poland was familiar; it has cultural and historical ties with Ukraine, especially with the western part of Ukraine.
In the post-Soviet times, before this war, thousands of Ukrainians had gone to Poland for work: a member of the European Union, Polish standards of living and salaries were higher than Ukrainian. Besides, the Polish language was closer to Ukrainian than any others of the countries that came forward to help. It would be manageable somehow; it could be learned, if not by everybody, at least by the younger people. But Poland couldn’t take in any more refugees. Posters in the refugee centre read in Ukrainian: “We are happy to welcome you, but our cities are full. Our small rural communities are cozy and peaceful. Consider moving there.” But even small villages were full and couldn’t afford to welcome any more people.
The women who arrived at the refugee centre accepted with resignation the fact that they would have to be on the move again. The way they decided where to go next somewhat surprised me: it wasn’t on the basis of a better financial package or living conditions. Rather, the criteria was proximity to Ukraine. The first question that women asked me about various countries also seemed unusual: they wanted to know if they would be able to find work quickly. I would talk about the hardships they had just endured; the necessity to rest, to take a break, to look around first. But that didn’t register. They have worked all their lives, they said. They are used to work. Living for free at somebody’s expenses was a no-no.
Most of the Ukrainian women I met were mild-mannered and perhaps less assertive, less forceful, compared to North American ones. All were both surprised and grateful for the help and goodwill they’d seen from so many. They couldn’t praise enough what the Poles did for them. They were deeply touched by the smallest acts of kindness. And none took the help for granted. “If this happened to other nations and we, Ukrainians, would have to do this for somebody else, would we have done the same? I am not sure,” said one woman.
Few discussed the wider political implications of the war. They didn’t talk about Putin or his goals, or the future of their country. Their concerns were more practical and immediate: food, clothing and the well-being of their children, their elderly mothers.
But I remember one woman, Nina, and her fiery indignation: “What have we done to Russians? What do they want from us? We didn’t bother anybody. Nazi? What Nazi? We live peacefully with our neighbours: gypsies, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians. We all speak Ukrainian and Russian!”
Another, older, woman, while waiting for the bus to Germany, was even more emphatic: “You tell me why Russians believe Putin’s propaganda? Why do they have the mentality of slaves? We Ukrainians may have our problems. But we’re free people. Russians are slaves! Slaves.” (The word “slave” in Russian usage has strongly negative connotations, implying the qualities of subservience, fear, and the desire to please the master.)
I thought about these words. I don’t have an answer to her question. Nor do I have any convincing arguments against her harsh indictment.
* * *
I’m still trying to comprehend and, in some way, come to terms with what I experienced over 16 days. It began when I flew into Warsaw from Vancouver and was picked up at the airport by a JDC representative. Together with two volunteers from the United States, we were driven to the Polish-Ukrainian border, where a small group of Holocaust survivors was to arrive. The drive took four to five hours and, by the time we got to the border, it was totally dark and bitterly cold.
Arrangements had been made with Germany that it would take in the Holocaust survivors. The German Red Cross ambulance bus had traveled 13 hours. I learned later that everybody in the ambulance was a volunteer – the driver was a history teacher, the three women were professional nurses donating hours and hours of service.
I wondered how it was possible to find a few Holocaust survivors in a warring country and bring them to safety. It turned out that the Jewish Agency had used the lists of survivors receiving financial assistance before the war to contact and evacuate them.
What struck me most at the time was the sight of several empty white canvass stretchers on the dirt next to the bus. It started to drizzle; the Germans stacked the stretchers and covered them with a tarp. The stretchers, soon to be filled with people, were a menacing sign of the proximity of war, invisible yet close. When the bus from Ukraine finally arrived, one body was carried out on a stretcher. So emaciated and skeletal was this body that, for a moment, I wondered why they were transporting a corpse with the living. When I looked closer, I saw that it was a woman, wounded and emaciated to an extreme degree but alive. For the next while, the Germans administered an IV to the seemingly unresponsive body. I overheard a conversation between two nurses: one wondering if the woman would be able to make it to Germany. They asked her a question – I translated – was she in pain? The woman shook her head. The Germans proceeded to take care of others.
Six other women got off the bus with some help from the Red Cross people and us.
One lady clutched her battered black purse that was overflowing with some papers. She refused to board the ambulance bus. A nurse and I held her up against the bitter wind, while she told us that her son was waiting for her here, around the corner, that he was going to pick her up. We finally figured out what she meant: her son was in Germany and she believed that she had arrived to Germany, not Poland. Efforts were made to contact her son right there, and somebody got him on the phone or they said they did, I’m not sure. But somehow the matter was settled: the woman agreed to board the ambulance.
None of these old and frail women escaped with any possessions to speak of: a handbag, a sack, was all they managed to take. But that little something was now the focus of their attention; a symbol of their lost nests, and they feverishly clung to it.
One woman finally settled on a stretcher inside the ambulance, her purse sitting on top of her chest. Another plowed through her handbag in search of a watch, the only item left from her late husband, she said; she couldn’t find it, believed it was stolen and was distraught.
Yet another was worried about her frequent need to urinate. A nurse and I led her to the blue booths on the side of the road. She whispered in my ear, asking if I could take her alone: the nurse had accompanied her to the booth before; it was too embarrassing to need to go again.
None of the Holocaust survivors seemed to be clear about what was going on and where they were going next. Finding out that there would be another 13 hours of travel to Frankfurt on top of the hours of travel behind her, one of the passengers refused to go. “I won’t be able to take it,” she said. “I lived through German occupation once and now it’s the Russians. I’ve had enough.”
The last to arrive (I think in a separate bus) was a man. With nothing in his hands, he seemed to be unperturbed by the lack of any worldly possessions. He came from Kyiv. “I didn’t want to leave. But I’m an invalid. I live on the third floor and can’t go downstairs into the basement during the air raids,” he explained. “My son was worried and decided to pack me off to Germany. One way or the other, what difference does it make for me after all I’ve lived through? I remember the Germans. They didn’t do to us what the Russians are doing.”
For almost anyone, this would be the most stunning statement. The Nazis, the Germans, and their allies, committed terrible atrocities during the Second World War (“the Great Patriotic War,” as it was officially called in the Soviet Union, where I grew up). They were inhuman in their cruelty; they were beasts. I still remember the games of my childhood that we played in our yards: the good guys were Russians, the bad ones were Nazis, the Fritzes, as we called them.
I thought about it as I was watched the German nurses taking care, with utmost attention and patience, of the elderly Ukrainian Jews, the Holocaust survivors, escaping Russian atrocities in the 21st century.
Marina Sonkina is a fiction writer, and teaches in the Liberal Arts Program 55+ at Simon Fraser University. She immigrated to Canada with her two then-young sons, as the Soviet Union was breaking up. When Russia attacked Ukraine, she applied as a volunteer with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. She arrived in Poland early this month and was a frontline responder for 16 days, offering refugees medical and psychological support.
Each year, we revisit the same Torah portions but, while the words remain the same, our understandings change based on what is happening in our world or in our lives. The exodus story, the story of Passover, remains as relevant as ever, as people in many parts of the world are being oppressed, are stateless or are living amid war.
As Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, citizens of that besieged country are seeking refuge in neighbouring states. It does not appear, at present, that Jewish Ukrainians are suffering any more or less than any other citizens of that state. However, history has shown that whenever and wherever upheaval occurs, it almost inevitably affects Jewish people in some particular way.
The age-old question, “What does it mean for the Jews?” is an acknowledgement that events that ostensibly appear unrelated to Jewish people specifically will have unique consequences for Jews.
As Russia’s invasion has faced an unexpected reply from the Ukrainian military and people, the risk of Vladimir Putin being backed into a corner opens the door to worrying potentials. He has already made threatening noises about chemical weapons and, even more worryingly, nuclear weapons – the very suggestions being an untenable line to cross for any nuclear-capable world leader.
It should be remembered, but it has been too infrequently mentioned during this crisis, that Ukraine once had the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, a legacy of the dismantling of the Soviet Union. In 1994, Ukraine was persuaded to transfer its entire arsenal to Russia to be decommissioned with the promise from the Western world that we would ensure that country’s security in return. As Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky continues his virtual global tour, prevailing upon the West to provide more military aid, we should remember that he is asking for the Western world to fulfil the promise it made to his country less than three decades ago.
We should also not need reminding that the existence of a Jewish state is a modern miracle that provides a place of refuge, mere decades after the absence of a homeland led to Jewish history’s worst cataclysm. There are some 200,000 Ukrainians who would qualify for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, and planeloads of Jewish Ukrainians are making their way to Israel, fleeing a modern-day pharaoh.
Of course, the land of milk and honey is, in reality, a real-world country facing an enormous range of problems. Recent terror attacks have some people fearing a third intifada or, at least, a season of upheaval like we saw last year when violence erupted. In turn, that hostility spread worldwide, with spikes in antisemitic incidents around the world, including in Canada. While Jews are securely ensconced in the Promised Land, Israelis still seek liberation from the figurative enslavement by terrorists and their supporters. And, at the same time, Palestinians also do not have the freedom they desire and deserve. This latest violence does not serve either people’s dreams of peace or justice; it further enslaves us to cycles of justifications of more violence and pain.
Meanwhile, Jewish families in North America are excited to return to comparatively normal seders and celebrations after two years of pandemic. This is itself a form of liberation. As we reenact the ancient exodus at our seder tables, we will hope for and commit ourselves to a world where all who are oppressed find freedom. This is not a rote rereading and it is not a theoretical wish. In a world with so many challenges and dangers, the story of escape from bondage remains as relevant and urgent as ever.
Left to right: Lucien, Grisha, Carole, Leanne and Svetlana at the airport in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 2019. (photo from Carole Lieberman)
My husband Lucien and I have been following the horrific invasion of Ukraine by Russia with particular interest. In 2019, we had the wonderful opportunity of traveling to Kyiv to meet Lucien’s first cousin, Grisha Lieberman, and his family.
Grisha’s father Sam had immigrated to Canada in 1923 and, after spending several years on the family farm in Rumsey, Alta., and later in Calgary, unfortunately Sam returned to Russia in 1928 to escort his parents, who were unhappy in Canada.
Sam had planned to return to Canada, but, after the war, ended up in the Gulag for close to 10 years. At age 57, truly a broken man, Sam met and married Rosa, a Jewish woman, and their son Grisha was born in 1958. We searched for the family for many years and finally contacted them in 2018.
Following our weeklong stay with Grisha and his wife Svetlana in May 2019, we formed a close bond. We are in touch with them often and enjoy regular Zoom visits despite language differences. Our daughter Leanne traveled with us on our 2019 visit, and we were all welcomed warmly.
Svetlana and Grisha have one son, Stanislaus, who is a lawyer in Kyiv. Their daughter, Tina Karol, a famous singer, performs at large concerts in Ukraine and travels the world to perform. Her tour to several U.S. cities, scheduled for this month, was recently canceled.
We follow details of the attack by the Russians on Ukraine closely and value every message that we receive from our cousins. Svetlana messages us regularly and writes that they are in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, in western Ukraine, where they are staying in an apartment and have access to limited items. They did not want to leave Kyiv and did so only at the last minute by evacuation train. They categorically refuse to leave their cherished land of Ukraine.
She writes: “Fascist Russia wants to destroy our state, just as Hitler tried to destroy other countries in 1941. But Ukraine gives a worthy rebuff to the aggressor…. We believe that Ukraine will win back its freedom and that we will welcome you back to beautiful Kyiv.” She writes that they are getting used to the air raid strikes that occur two or three times each day. Their son Stanislaus is with them in western Ukraine, now in possession of a gun that was provided to him by the government to aid in Ukraine’s defence.
Their daughter Tina left Kyiv before the Russian aggression. When we were there, we clearly remember Tina telling us that she kept a suitcase packed in case of an urgent situation. She is currently in Warsaw; her 16-year-old son goes to school in England.
Last week, we watched with tears as Tina was interviewed on CNN. And, at a recent charity concert in Lodz, Poland, called Together with Ukraine, Tina was one of the performers. It was touching to see her sing with 7-year-old Amelia, who had previously sung “Let it Go” while hiding in a Ukrainian bomb shelter, before making it safely to Poland. Tina performed at a No War telethon attended by the leaders of European countries, the United States and Canada. And, on March 28, she performed in Israel at a charity concert, with funds being raised for medical needs.
We continue to pray for our family and for all Ukrainians, and for a peaceful resolution and a free Ukraine.
Carole Lieberman, a longtime Vancouver resident, is originally from Montreal. She is a mother of three, grandmother of four, and has enjoyed selling Vancouver real estate for 32 years. You can read her article about her family’s 2019 visit to Ukraine at jewishindependent.ca/meaningful-family-trip-to-kyiv.
Hebrew University academic Samuel Barnai said Ukrainian unity extends beyond political parties and politicians, such as President Volodymyr Zelensky (pictured here), and the war is viewed as a great patriotic fight for Ukraine. (photo from president.gov.ua)
In the July 12, 2021, essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Russian President Vladimir Putin declares, “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources. They have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship has been transmitted from generation to generation. It is in the hearts and the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in the blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.”
This quote from Putin’s 2021 essay was shared by Prof. Yitzhak Brudny at a March 15 Hebrew University of Jerusalem webinar focused on “the ideological sources of the Russian-Ukrainian War.” The webinar featured Brudny, a professor of political science and history, and Samuel Barnai, an adjunct lecturer at the European Forum and at the HU’s Rothberg International School.
Brudny explained that Putin went even further in his claims just over a year after that essay. On Feb. 21, 2022, three days prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin stated that “modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia, more precisely, by the Bolshevik, communist Russia. This process began almost immediately after the 1917 revolution” and “Ukraine never had a tradition of genuine statehood.” Later in the speech, Putin points to Russia as being the main enemy in the eyes of the United States and NATO.
According to Brudny, these statements show a denial by Putin of Ukraine’s right to exist without an alliance with Russia and that the current Ukraine state is a “forepost of NATO” run by an “illegitimate, puppet government.” In Putin’s mind, he can justify the war because he sees it as rectifying an historical injustice caused more than a century ago, as well as remedying the security issues posed by a NATO-friendly state as Russia’s neighbour.
Brudny outlined the more recent history of Ukraine, from its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union (during its dissolution) to the present day. Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Russia in that it has accepted democratic electoral processes. Russia, meanwhile, has grown increasingly authoritarian and views a democratic state positioned between it and NATO countries, especially those that were part of the former Eastern Bloc, as a threat.
Barnai spoke to Russia’s military goals at the outset of the current conflict: destruction of Ukrainian air forces, destruction of Ukraine’s military headquarters, the besiegement of the capital Kyiv and the creation of a puppet government.
“Now that we are talking on the 20th day of the war, none of the targets have been reached,” said Barnai. “How can this be explained? In my opinion, one of the main reasons is the consolidation of Ukrainian society. There is widespread support for the president [Volodymyr Zelensky] and the government, which was not even the case two months ago. There is also support for accession to the EU and NATO, even in the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, which were less sympathetic to joining these alliances before,” he said.
In Barnai’s view, the present state of Ukrainian unity extends beyond current political parties and politicians, such as Zelensky, and the war is viewed as a great patriotic fight for Ukraine.
Barnai added that Putin, who has led Russia since Dec. 31, 1999, may have fallen victim to his own propaganda, “that Ukrainian-ness is an artificial tool to cause damage to the Russian people.”
The belief that Ukrainian culture is dangerous and must be eliminated runs deep in the Russian collective consciousness. Barnai gave several historical examples that illustrate this point. There was the suppression of the Ukrainian language by Czar Peter I in 1720. In 1763, Catherine the Great issued a decree banning the teaching of the Ukrainian language at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. In 1876, Alexander II prohibited the printing of all Ukrainian literature within the Russian Empire. And, in 1914, there was a decree by the last czar, Nicholas II, prohibiting the Ukrainian press. Despite a range of views on other historical matters, these and other Russian leaders shared a common desire to suppress Ukrainian cultural identity.
Barnai explained that there are close ties – historical, religious, and personal – between Russians and Ukrainians, and many have family connections to both countries. He said the real threat to Putin today is not NATO or the European Union, but “the success, even if it is limited success, of political and economic reform in Ukraine.”
This threat, Barnai concluded, plays out in the lack of true participation the Russians have in the political and economic processes of their country. “The main struggle of Putin for the last 22 years,” said Barnai, “has been to deprive Russians of their rights in the political arena.”
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
The world’s economies have never been more integrated or interdependent. This is most immediately evident in the fact that a war halfway around the world sends gasoline prices skyrocketing in Metro Vancouver.
But that interdependence has also permitted the most dramatic, swift and merciless sanctions ever seen – as a response to that very war. Within days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a jaw-dropping catalogue of economic penalties was slammed against the Russian regime. Not only that, but the sanctions have taken aim at individual millionaires and billionaires who exist in a symbiotic, mafia-like relationship with the Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin. Every day, the news is filled with one company after another cutting ties with Russian businesses, stopping trade with Russian producers and withdrawing their products and services from Russian consumers.
Cultural boycotts have also been swift. The Vancouver Recital Society canceled a scheduled event with the Russian piano wunderkind Alexander Malofeev and scores or hundreds of similar cancellations have taken place in the classical music arena and other cultural sectors. International sporting competitions have barred Russian participation.
The combined effects of these thousands of individual actions are intended to put pressure on Russian citizens who will then, the plan goes, turn on their leader who will then, perhaps, alter his murderous invasion and withdraw or, better still, be ousted in favour of a return to the nascent democracy Russia was nurturing before Putin put his boot heel on its neck.
If these sanctions work, it could be a turning point in human history – nonviolent economic retribution outmanoeuvring brute force. (In addition to economic sanctions, Western countries have also supplied Ukraine with military equipment and other supports, while stopping short of meeting the entreaties of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky that the West get more directly involved, including by implementing a no-fly zone over his country, which would equate to a direct military conflict between Russia and the West.)
Events are unfolding by the minute, with more than two million refugees flooding neighbouring countries in the course of just 10 days and horrific images of destruction and death flowing out to the world. Amid all this, a few observations stand out.
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to Moscow after Zelensky implored him to act as an intermediary. Israel has fraught, complex and deep historical and contemporary connections with both countries, including a massive chunk of Israel’s population that came from Russia and Ukraine in the past 30 years and another large proportion with older roots in the region. Bennett and Zelensky are, it has been noted, the only two Jewish heads of government in the world. Zelensky’s steadfastness during these weeks of war has inspired the world, perhaps especially Jews worldwide, who now see him as a David defending both his homeland and democracy itself from the Goliath of Putin’s military. It would be remarkable if the prime minister of Israel were able to play a part in brokering the end to war and restoring national integrity to Ukraine.
In this space, we have been critical of cultural boycotts that target Israeli performers, athletes and others. Cultural interactions between citizens of diverse countries are the lifeblood of global civilization. In the case of real or proposed sanctions against Israel, the end-goal is ambiguous. Depending on the proponent, movements to boycott Israel aim to variously sanction particular policies, end the occupation or end Israel (as the term “anti-Zionist” implies). They are, for all intents, a punishment without end, given that the end-goal is vague. In the case of Russia, the hope is that the short, sharp shock of sanctions will lead to a satisfactory resolution and then we will ideally again soon welcome Russian performers and athletes, to say nothing of a return to trade with one of the world’s largest economies. The clarity of the call – leave Ukraine alone! – is critical to success. Unlike the undefined or obscured goals of BDS, the campaign against Russia is clear. If Russia retreats, sanctions will be peeled back.
There is another issue worth considering. It is notable that countries guilty of egregious crimes, such as the Chinese government’s imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of its Uyghur Muslim citizens and others, have not brought down the near-unanimous wrath of the West. Perhaps this is proof of the dictum that white lives elicit greater global concern than lives of people of colour. It may also be that the world understands that the invasion of Ukraine might be a precursor to greater territorial ambitions. It is also unavoidable that, for the Western collective memory, war in Europe evokes the gravest ghosts of the 20th century.
We will soon know whether the most comprehensive sanctions ever imposed (undergirded by materiel support) can end this conflict without the worst case scenario – direct conflagration between nuclear powers, Russia and the West – coming to pass. If they are successful, it would signal a new age in which concerted economic influence, rather than boots on the ground, can turn the tide of history.
At our press time, the people of Ukraine were waiting, as they have for weeks, to see what fate has in store for them. Vladimir Putin, the Russian despot, has been threatening to invade the country – again. Under Putin, Russia has already illegally occupied the Crimean peninsula and two enclaves in eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian extremists are also in control in Transnistria, a breakaway entity to the west of Ukraine that the world community recognizes as part of Moldova. In the Russian countryside surrounding the parts of Ukraine that Russia has not already occupied, an estimated 190,000 Russian troops are poised to attack.
Putin’s designs on Ukraine are ostensibly about his concerns over Ukraine potentially joining NATO, which some Russians view as a step too far in the incremental loss of Russian dominance over what was once the Soviet Union and, before that, the Russian Empire. He is also motivated by his own desire for power and expanding his influence. Along with other Russian nationalists, Putin views Ukraine as more than a neighbouring country but rather an integral part of a sacred Eurasian (Russian-dominated, of course) land.
Western powers have warned and cajoled Putin, who seems to revel in tormenting his adversaries. He is almost certainly aware that no one (save, perhaps, himself) wants war. The United States, having just catastrophically escaped a military debacle in Afghanistan, has no interest in continuing their role as the world’s policeman. The leaders of France, the United Kingdom, Germany and other Western powers have warned of serious consequences if Putin follows through on what appear to be unconcealed ambitions to invade, but none of those countries will risk the lives of their young people to defend Ukrainian sovereignty. It was precisely occasions like this for which the United Nations was envisioned, but the ideals of its founders have run aground on the rocks of realpolitik.
Genuine threats of reprisals are limited to economic sanctions. Here, too, Putin knows that embargoes and other economic penalties would be devastating not only for his country but for the economies of the West. Western Europe depends on Russian oil and anything – military instability or international sanctions – could send fuel and heating costs, which are already at record highs in many places, further through the ceiling. At a certain point, that could threaten the stability of some Western governments. More worrying is the fact that Ukraine has always been, and remains, the “breadbasket” of the region. Military or economic disruptions that harm Ukraine’s ability to get products to market could lead to food shortages. The possibilities are bleak.
Canada is home to one of the Ukrainian diaspora’s largest populations. More than 1.3 million Canadians are from, or descended from, the place. A significant proportion of North America’s Jewish population, too, is from that area and an even larger proportion departed to the new world through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
Ukraine has somewhere between 43,000 and 200,000 Jews. Definitions of “who is a Jew” are complicated by nearly a century of enforced atheism and centuries more of rampant antisemitism. The 200,000 estimate is the number who would qualify for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
According to the New York Times, synagogues have hired Israeli security guards and hired buses for rapid evacuations. The Jewish Agency is said to have evacuation plans at the ready.
For all Ukrainians, the past 100 years have been a series of tumults. Jewish Ukrainians have been especially vulnerable during these times of upheaval – and the older Jews today, and those with any sense of history, may rightly understand they have more to fear than other potential victims of a Russian invasion.
Israeli government officials have been remarkably tight-lipped on the subject, other than to urge the 12,000 Israelis in Ukraine to come home as soon as possible – reportedly only 4,000 have so far done so.
It is easy, understandable even, to suggest the time has come for Jews in Ukraine and other places where life is especially difficult, to leave for Israel or elsewhere. Certainly, we are thankful that Jews with nowhere else to go have a Jewish state ready to take them in.
But Ukraine is their home. There are hundreds of Jewish organizations and institutions in Ukraine, a place where Jewish civilization goes back 1,200 years and where a vast amount of Jewish culture emerged in the past several centuries, including important streams of Hasidism and many noted authors and artists.
As the world waits on Putin, the latest in far too long a line of Russian tyrants, we watch with a sense of helplessness, knowing that people are afraid and suffering. And we hope that those in power pull back from the brink.