Kharkiv, Ukraine — In the basement of the Jewish Cultural Center, a small group of folks in their 20s and early 30s comes trickling in for the weekly Friday night Sabbath celebration.
It’s fewer people than usual, about 15 participants, since many have gone out of town for the May Day holiday, but the members represent a wide range of backgrounds. Some attendees found out only few years ago that they were, in fact, Jewish, after they received a phone call from the Jewish Agency for Israel. Other worshippers remember what it meant to have “Jew” written on their passports as their nationality during Soviet times. Pictures and banners around the center show smiling adults and teenagers at various outings and on holidays. Advertisements for trips to Israel are everywhere.
As the women get ready to light candles, the men make sure they are all wearing their yarmulkes. And the May 2 Sabbath service begins, as usual.
In a sense, that is the news here.
Though eastern Ukraine is saturated with stories of violence and upheaval, and Russian troops were massing across the border a mere 30 miles from Kharkiv, everything has continued as normal in the city, including activities at the Jewish center.
“If I didn’t have my mother calling me, asking me what was going on, I would have no idea what was going on; things are so peaceful here,” said Alla Magas, 29, a member of the Jewish community.
The situation — a kind of delicate equilibrium in which civil life continues even as troops and militias increasingly mobilize — has been described as an echo of the so-called “phony war” that characterized World War II from September 1939, when the Allies first declared war on Germany after it invaded Poland, until the Battle of France, in May 1940.
Magas is a good example of the determined normalcy with which many of Kharkiv’s estimated 45,000 Jews are facing daily life. She recalled having “an unpleasant feeling” when she heard about the anti-Semitic leaflets that mysterious men in masks handed out to Jews in Donetsk, some 150 miles away, as they left Passover services in April. The fliers, which ordered all Jews in the town to register with the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic, whose militias had taken over local government buildings, were condemned as fake by the leader of the rebel faction, and dismissed by local Jewish leaders as a provocation. “The scariest things are what they show in the news, not what actually happens in real life,” Magas said.
Vladimir Yakimov, 25, is another Jew whose response to the political pathology growing around him is simply to shut it out and carry on with life. “I’ve unplugged my television and taken it out of my room so I can’t watch it,” said Yakimov, who is originally from a small town near Slaviansk, which has become one of the hotbeds of pro-Russian separatists. “Of course there’s a threat to Jews, but when the situation is so unstable, there is a threat to everyone.”
A recent survey from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe found that there has not been a real increase in anti-Semitism in Ukraine over the past few years and there has not been a surge of genuine anti-Semitic activity in the past several months. Rather, there have been several provocations, and political rather than anti-Semitic statements, said Josef Zissels, vice president of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of the General Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.
“There is more anxiety among Jews [because of these provocations], but there isn’t a special threat of violence to Jews,” Zissels said.