Kharkhiv Jews Stay Calm Amid Separatist Storm Elsewhere in Ukraine

No Nerves in Bubble of Stability 20 Miles From Russia Border

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By Katherine Jacobsen

Published May 08, 2014, issue of May 16, 2014.

(page 3 of 3)

Meanwhile, pro-Russian separatists, who are demanding a referendum on greatly loosening or breaking the ties between eastern Ukraine and the national government in Kiev, have revived symbols of Russian nationalism with unsavory associations of their own. This includes the black, yellow and white flag of the Black Hundreds, a xenophobic, ultra-nationalist Russian group that backed the czar at the turn of the 20th century and incited pogroms against Russian Jews.

Historically, neither side in Ukraine’s current political battle has been very good to Ukraine’s Jews, Rabbi Moishe Moskovitz, spiritual leader of the Kharkiv Jewish community, told the Forward. Both the government in Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists should “prove that they will allow an open society,” he said. Accusations of anti-Semitism by one side against the other contribute nothing toward this end, Moskovitz said.

Moskovitz, who is affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, said Kharkiv is in many ways an exception for Ukrainian Jews. The city’s mayor, Gennady Kernes, was democratically elected with the public knowing full well he is a Jew. During his tenure, Kernes has fostered a close, open relationship with the Jewish community, even giving a speech at the wedding of Moskovitz’s daughter. Under Kernes’s leadership, the local police, unlike in many other places, have also remained focused and responsive to direction from the town’s elected civilian political leaders.

Though Kernes almost died in an assassination attempt in late April, the political situation in Kharkiv has remained relatively stable, making the city itself an exception along Ukraine’s increasingly unstable border with Russia.

Still, as politically charged violence spreads through eastern and southern Ukraine, discussion of the topic has become increasingly emotional, the rabbi said. Kernes’s shooting, for which no one has yet been arrested, brought the danger much closer to home.

Moskovitz related how at a weekly religious class for businessmen at the Choral Synagogue, which he leads, discussions about recent events at the start of each class have turned increasingly to politics. Moskovitz said he gently reminds the group that a synagogue is no place for a political discussion.

Individual Jews may take personal stands, he said, but as a collective entity, “the Jewish community should wait and see how things turn out, rather than taking political sides.”

Contact Katherine Jacobsen at

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