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The birth of Ukrainian Jewish identity is happening right now

Russia hasn’t ‘liberated’ Ukrainian Jews. It’s united them with other Ukrainians against their common enemy

KYIV — Like most of my fellow Ukrainian citizens (regardless of ethnic background), I did not believe this war could happen. In the 21st century, I thought that war and torture of civilians and mass displacement was part of the “Never again” sentiment we had sworn after World War II to uphold.

I could not have been more wrong.

I grew up in a unique Ukrainian family. Our Jewish identity was always an integral part of our lives. One grandfather was exiled in the 1920s to Kazakhstan for participating in Zionist activities, and the other was a member of the Gordonia Zionist youth movement in Chernivtsi (then part of Romania). My parents were married under a chuppah in Soviet Kyiv in 1971, and they still have their ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) on a piece of notebook paper.

Since 1993 I have been involved in various Jewish newspapers and magazines as a writer and editor, and for the last few years, I have been the editor-in-chief of Hadashot, one of the oldest Jewish newspapers in Ukraine.

When people ask me about the “Jewish” aspect of the Russian-Ukrainian war, my first impulse is to say there is no “Jewish” aspect. On the one hand, that’s true — there are no explicit calls for the extermination of Jews like Hitler made, but on the other hand, Russia’s invasion was launched under the hypocritical slogan of “denazification” of Ukraine and “protection” of Ukraine’s Russian-speakers. In this sense, Ukrainian Jews were supposedly the subject of the Kremlin’s dual “concern” — both as Jews (for whom Nazism is the embodiment of absolute evil) and as Russian-speakers.

Jews in Ukraine have traditionally gravitated toward the Russian language as the Jewish population after World War II was mainly concentrated in the large cities of the southeast and center of Ukraine, i.e. in predominantly Russian-speaking regions. Additionally, for many decades Russian was the language of the ruling elite in the Soviet Union (and in the Russian Empire before that), and ethnic minorities like Jews tend to be culturally and linguistically oriented to the ways of the local elites, due to their proximity in service roles.

While Putin’s war may have been initiated under the false pretense of “denazification,” his senseless assault has only affirmed a deeper Ukrainian Jewish identity. Putin’s aggression has compromised everything associated with the Russian-speaking space and has naturally brought Ukrainian Jews closer to the Ukrainian national majority.

A new wave of Jewish refugees

The war’s impacts have been heaviest in the east, southeast and center of the country, where most of Ukraine’s large Jewish communities are concentrated. “We shouldn’t have been liberated from anyone,” was the refrain I heard from Ukrainian Jews of all ages and all backgrounds. But the Russian army did “liberate” them — from a life of relative peace, from their homes and jobs, and from their family members and friends, who had become displaced or victims of Russian bombs.

For the first time since World War II and the establishment of the state of Israel, the world has seen tens of thousands of Jewish refugees escaping all-out war. I have personally collected more than 150 testimonies of Jewish refugees from Ukraine, an effort I started in the very first days of this war that has now become the Exodus-2022 Project. For many of them, it was their second wartime evacuation. Among them is my 89-year-old father, Herman Gold, an Honored Artist of Ukraine, who as a child was evacuated from Moscow in October 1941 and in March 2022 hurriedly repatriated to Israel via Moldova. His case is not unique at all.

Anatoliy (Tuvia) Shengait’s 97-year-old father, who fled to Russia from the Germans in 1941, is now fleeing the Russians by going to Germany. Dr. Boris Zabarko, a former child survivor of the Shargorod Ghetto in Vinnytsia, Ukraine and chair of the Ukrainian association of Holocaust survivors, also recently made the long and challenging journey from Kyiv to Germany to escape the war. “For me this is the second tragedy of my life,” he reflected, adding that his fellow association members, who miraculously survived the German occupation, were now, again, scattered all over the world.

Virtually every refugee I interviewed had their own unique “Jewish” experience of the war. One woman recalled baking matzah for Passover last April on an old Soviet oven, feeling for the first time that she was “coming out of Egypt.” A math teacher from Mariupol used a menorah as a lamp in a dark basement bomb shelter, so that she could give an insulin shot to her diabetic and paralyzed mother. A Jewish woman who suddenly found herself in Russian-occupied territory had to hide her Star of David necklace under her blouse for the first time in her life.

Iryna Zhivolup, a Jewish notary in Izyum, lost her entire family to a Russian Grad rocket. Seriously wounded herself, she was alone suffering in a house without a roof for eight days during freezing temperatures before her neighbors found her. I interviewed her by phone a few hours after the ambulance carrying her crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border. Now she is in Israel, still walking with a cane, and only recently learned the burial plot numbers of her family members in Ukraine. How is someone like Zhivolup, whose entire family was killed by their Russian “liberators,” supposed to feel?

Ukrainian Jewish rebirth

The war has drastically affected the identity of the Jewish community of Ukraine. In fact, in many ways, the birth of Ukrainian Jewry is now taking place. Many of my neighbors still speak their native Russian, but they no longer consider themselves part of the Russian-speaking Jewish world. There is a large-scale shift to using the Ukrainian language in the public sphere (a trend I’ve been following since 2014 that affects the Jewish community as well). More and more Jews are announcing on their personal Facebook pages their choice to use Ukrainian.

Ukrainian Jews were still quite skeptical about some of Ukraine’s newly embraced national historical heroes like Simon Petliura, Stepan Bandera, or Yurii Shukhevych, who directly or indirectly fueled antisemitism. These days, however, as people who find themselves under constant Russian shelling, Ukrainians are finding that they have much more in common than their differing perspectives on Ukrainian history. “Unlike during the collapse of the USSR, today the Jewish community clearly identifies itself with the Ukrainian state, ready to share in its ordeals, defend its land and die for its independence,” says Vyacheslav Likhachev, an expert at the Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties that was the co-recipient of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr. Anatoly Podolsky, a well-known Ukrainian-Jewish historian and Director of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies, agrees with Likhachev. “The full-scale Russian invasion has propelled the formation of a Ukrainian political identity,” he said. He referenced as an example his colleague, Jewish professor Maksym Gon, who at the age of 56 joined the Ukrainian army as a volunteer. Another well-known case is that of Asher-Yosef Cherkassky, an ultra-Orthodox Ukrainian officer and father of three children, one of whom also serves in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Instead of crumbling along ethnic lines, Ukrainians are united against their common enemy.

Damages and future prospects

During more than 30 years of independence, Ukraine has developed an extensive network of Jewish community, religious, educational and youth organizations, largely thanks to the support of Western Jews. Needless to say, the activities of many of them have collapsed.

According to Likhachev’s data, 14 of 80 Ukrainian Jewish places of worship have already been damaged in the past year. This is numerically proportional to the damage to the houses of worship of other faiths in Ukraine, but perhaps more potent since there is often only a single synagogue in a Ukrainian city.

Despite all this, Likhachev is confident that the Jewish community of Ukraine has a future. Though, according to him, it has more to do with social service along with the concept of tikkun olam than with the role of the guardian of Jewish traditions. The powerful activism of the global Jewish community in Ukraine, compared to organizations like the International Red Cross, has been a welcome surprise. It has come not only in traditionally “Jewish” cities such as Odesa (where volunteers from ZAKA — an Israel-based team of largely Orthodox Jewish emergency responders — were the first to arrive to provide relief efforts after the explosions in the port), but also, for example, in Mykolaiv, where the Jewish community distributes food to anyone in need, and volunteers to fix windows shattered by bombs.

I want to believe that the Jewish community will successfully find a new place in Ukraine’s transforming society. I also want to believe that the war, which has reshaped our understanding of global security challenges, will end this year.

A year ago, however, we lived with the hope that a full-scale Russian invasion would not happen. Our hopes have gone horribly unfulfilled, but I am cheered by the resiliency of the Ukrainian people, and the Jewish community in particular. In this war, we live and die together, as one people.

Slava Ukraini!

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