We, Jewish students in the United Kingdom, stand by our Jewish brothers and sisters in Ukraine, during their hour of need.
The history of Jewish life in Ukraine is even older than the country itself. In times of peace, the community in Ukraine has flourished and prospered. Odessa, a key centre of Jewish civilisation, was a beacon of hope in a sea of darkness. It was a factory of Jewish creativity, culture, and leadership producing everyone from Dr Leon Pinsker to Ze’ev Jabotinsky. In the east of the country, Galicia saw the birthplace and growth of both Hasidism and the Haskalah – two intellectual movements embodying the diversity of Jewish thought and tradition. Until this day, in central Ukraine, thousands make annual pilgrimage to Uman for Rosh Hashannah to pay their respects to a master of Jewish spirituality, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. That Ukraine has been central to Jewish history and identity in Europe, is undeniable. Many of us in the Diaspora feel a special connection to Ukraine, as many of our forefathers made the brave leap across the oceans from its ports.
With great regret, this glorious past has been punctured by moments of extreme tragedy. We need only mention the awful massacres of Bogdan Chmielnicki in the seventeenth century, or indeed Anton Denikin in the Crimea during the Russian Civil War. Above all, we can never forget that the Nazi Holocaust almost obliterated any trace of Jewish existence in hundreds of communities. Of course, many Ukrainians aided the Nazis in their genocidal project to wipe out the Jews of Europe – an aspect of the nation’s history which it struggles to reckon with.
Communist rule brought further despair to the embattled Jewish communities of Ukraine, leading many to make Aliyah when the Iron Curtain finally collapsed. Ukraine has since tried to pave its way as an independent nation state in spite of the spill over of Cold War tensions. However, its leaders have often been corrupt and authoritarian, its body politic mismanaged and rotten to the core.
We have looked on with alarm at current events as extreme nationalist fervour threatens Jewish life once again. In times of political instability, people blame ‘the other’. Ukrainian Jews once again find themselves in a worrying situation.
Last year, BBC Panorama viewers were shocked to witness scenes in the run up to the Euro 2012 football tournament, where entire stadiums of hooligans chanted incredibly hateful statements directed against Jews and other minorities. Around the same time, the city of Lviv’s very own police force – the institution charged with defending the rights and liberties of all citizens, regardless of their personal background – assaulted and extorted a PhD student, Dmitry Fleckman, simply because of his surname. Being identifiably Jewish meant he was fair game – and with no police force to protect him, he was truly helpless.
Recent political tensions in the country have only exacerbated these disturbing trends. According to Timothy Snyder of the New York Times, the recently deposed Yanukovych regime instructed riot police that the opposition gathered on the streets of Kiev was organised by a ‘Jewish conspiracy.’ Not that segments of the opposition are any better. Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the Svoboda party, who command much support amongst Ukrainian nationalists, received numerous complaints after previously claiming the government was led by a ‘Muscovite-Jewish mafia.’ Their party membership is restricted to ‘ethnic Ukrainians’. Svoboda have since taken key positions in the new Ukrainian government, including Deputy Prime Minister, despite being widely recognised as a group with a clear neo-Nazi bent. Last year, the World Jewish Congress called on the EU to ban the party along with Greece’s Golden Dawn.
While the politicians deal in words, the situation is far more serious on the ground. Amidst clashes between pro-Russian protestors and Ukrainian nationalists in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s Crimean republic, the city’s main Reform synagogue was vandalised. In Zaporozhye, near south-eastern Ukraine, Molotov cocktails were thrown at a Chabad synagogue and community centre.
We can no longer stand by in silence. While our brothers and sisters continuously suffer, we cannot remain idle. While we have sympathy with the people of Ukraine as a whole, it is particularly incumbent upon ourselves as Jewish students to help our fellow Jews when they are clearly under threat – simply because they are Jewish. As a community, we have always been at our finest when assisting fellow Jews at important times. Who can forget the struggle for Soviet Jewry or our continuing solidarity with the State of Israel?
We are currently in close contact with the Ukrainian Union of Jewish Students – as they have commented to us, ‘you as students of [the] UK can raise your voice for Ukraine and its youth.’ Accordingly, we are trying our best to mobilise grass-roots support for their plight.
Here is what you can do in the meantime:
• Write a statement/ letter to the President of Russian Federation. This can be done via the Russian Embassy and Consulate.
• Voice your reservations about the composition of the new Ukrainian government. This can be done via the Ukrainian Embassy.
• Write to your local MP asking them to take a more active role in resolving the current situation.
• Write to the Foreign Secretary who has visited Kiev and is aware of the severity of the situation.
• Sign a petition that will be sent to the President of Russia from a group of Ukrainian Jewish businessmen, scientists, and NGO chairs. As a non-partisan campaign we will not endorse it, but we have been asked by the Ukrainian Union of Jewish Students to spread it. In solidarity with their plight, we will.
Our brothers and sisters, we stand in solidarity with you.
Richard Black, Oxford University (Union of Jewish Students, PITA 2013)
Jonathan Hunter, Oxford University (Union of Jewish Students National Council, StandWithUs UK)
Samuel P. Steinbock, King’s College London (Board of Deputies of British Jews)
Samuel O. Gross, Cambridge University