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Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

Caught in the Crossfire of History: Ukrainian Jewish Legacy

The war now raging in Ukraine reminds us of the deeply embedded connection that Jews have had with this society. Nor should we forget that nation’s long history of anti-Jewish expression and behavior!

  • Ukraine has been home to Jews for more than a thousand years, making it one of the oldest and largest centers of Jewish life.
  • Over its long history, Ukraine was often seen as a key military prize for such nations as Poland, Russia, and Austria, and with it the fate of its significant Jewish population was always being challenged.
  • Historians note that many of the most distinctive modern Jewish theological and cultural traditions among them Hasidism had their founding in Ukraine.[1]
  • The Russian term “pogrom”, meaning “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently,” would originate in the Ukraine. [2]The first such incident where this practice would be introduced is believed to be the 1821 anti-Jewish rioting in Odessa.
  • With the end of the First World War, a number of prominent Ukrainian Jewish political activists would play key roles on behalf of the Russian Revolution and the emergence of modern Zionism. In the case of the latter, Ze’ev Jabotinsky would become the ideological leader of Revisionist Zionism.
  • During the Second World War more than one million Jews from Ukraine would be killed by the Nazis with the support of their local collaborators.
  • Throughout the post-War era and even in current times, there have been on-going reports of both neo-Nazi activity and other forms of over anti-Semitic actions directed against the country’s remaining Jewish population. Human Rights Watch reported in 2010 that graffiti and various acts of violence were being directed against Jews. [3]
  • A 1989 Soviet population study noted that there were some 387,000 Jews in the Ukraine. In 2012, the Israel Diaspora Ministry reported that were some 250,000 Jews remaining; yet an earlier Ukrainian census report indicated that there were some 108,600 Jews in the country.
  • In more recent times Jews have played key roles in the political life of Ukrainian democracy. In 2014 Ihor Kolomyskyi was appointed a regional governor, while Volodymyr Groysman was elected Speaker of the country’s Parliament. In 2019, the current Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, would become the first Jew elected to this office.

Commentary on the Current Realities:

 According to President Putin this is a war to “de-Nazify Ukraine”.[4]  Some analysts have suggested that this maybe a strategy by the Russians to reintroduce anti-Semitism as a way to turn Ukrainians against their “Jewish” President. Indeed, there is some concern that an outcome of a defeated Ukraine will reintroduce a new round of anti-Jewish expression, just as there is a degree of irony in the labeling of the Ukrainian President a “Nazi”.[5] All of this would remind us that old patterns of hatred are difficult to contain!

[1] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ukraine-virtual-jewish-history-tour

[2] https://www.history.com/topics/russia/pogroms

[3] https://www.hrw.org/europe/central-asia/ukraine

[4] https://www.jta.org/2022/02/25/global/in-4-years-volodymyr-zelensky-went-from-jewish-comedian-to-putins-no-1-enemy-and-defender-of-democracy

[5] Ibid.

 

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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