Russia, Ukraine & the Jews: If it seems like nothing has changed…

It’s hard to relate to news occurring on the other side of the world, despite the media coverage and talking heads analyzing grand themes like the future of NATO and the price of gasoline. Such it is with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We know its importance from an intellectual perspective, but on an emotional level, for many of us it’s just a regrettable thing, happening to innocent people, in a faraway place.


We talk about it, we send money in relief and we rue the ordeal ordinary individuals must face at the hands of a tyrant pursuing an evil agenda all his own. As yet, it hasn’t necessarily struck us where we live.

It will. The world is a dangerous place. It just got more dangerous still.


Over the last few days, I’ve been pondering my own growing emotional engagement with the Ukraine invasion. My paternal grandfather, Jacob Drimer, was born in 1890 in Czernovitz, Austro-Hungarian Empire. Until a few days ago – reminded by my youngest daughter living in Europe – I had forgotten Czernowitz is now in the Ukraine. My daughter’s text was a wakeup call. Just yesterday, my French cousin texted that Jacob’s sister was born in Kolomiya, and her husband was born in Sziget. Our great-grandmother was born in Rohatyn, near Lviv. These were long forgotten names inscribed in a dusty notebook that holds the family history. Now they are “strategic objectives” and the subjects of hourly news updates.

Historically, the Ukraine was an inhospitable place for Jews. It’s where the horrific Babi Yar massacre by the Nazi SS of 33,000 Jews and others over just two days in 1944 took place. Approximately one million of the country’s Jews died during the World War. After the Fall of the Soviet Union, many Jewish Ukrainians emigrated to Israel.

Many thousands remain, and it remains one of the world’s largest Jewish communities.  The capitol of Kyiv is the home of approximately 110,000 Jews; there are at least six synagogues. (Only pronounce the city like “Keeve,” it’s the Ukrainian transliteration; the more common “Kiev,” pronounced “Key-ev” is the Russian pronunciation. For good reasons, it should be shunned.)
Today the president of Ukraine is a Jew, trained as an attorney, who was a comedian and actor before becoming a producer and a reformist voice in Ukrainian politics. He won the presidency with a runoff landslide – despite virulent antisemitic attacks – and his party swept to legislative power shortly thereafter. Now Mr. Zelensky is faced with a crisis he had hoped to avert (a major campaign plank was to defuse increasing tensions with Russia and the country’s Russian ethnic-minorities).

He has impressed the world with his courage and aplomb, his defiance and resilience. He has proved himself an inspirational leader in the face of an existential crisis. I impute the Russians didn’t bargain for the resistance they are facing from the Ukrainian army and the citizenry, who have signaled their willingness to fight a guerrilla war if necessary, against one of the best-equipped armies in the world. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare wrote “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” I impute Mr. Zelensky is of the latter grouping; but he answered history’s call.

Volodymyr Zelensky‘ s grandfather was one of four brothers, three of whom were killed by the Nazis. My grandfather, who came here in 1912 for an extended visit, was forced to stay because war broke out in Europe, met my grandmother Bella through their local Zionist clubs, married and never left. Later, he lost his entire family in the Holocaust. As with all Jewish stories of that era, the destiny of a generation hinges on small but profound acts or seemingly meaningless incidents. Though it never occurred to me until now, the general circumstances of my life story and Mr. Zelensky’s would not be that different were it not for the vagaries of fate.
The impact of the invasion on the Jews of Ukraine is – and will continue to be – a tragedy which will likely resound for decades to come. There have been many casualties, there will be more, and homes and neighborhoods have been destroyed. Attacks on non-military targets is criminal under international law, but that has not stopped the Russian invaders. Russia fulfills 40% of the energy needs of Europe. The entire continent is wracked by anxiety about “energy insecurity.” One reason Pres. Biden is reluctant to choke off all Russian energy imports is the political impact of $7 per gallon gasoline at the pumps.


Ukrainian officials have reached out to Israel to lead diplomatic efforts to effect a ceasefire. But many in Ukraine and elsewhere believe Putin’s thawed relationship with Israel and the Jews in recent years is a false flag. It’s feared if the end of hostilities results in a puppet government where Russia pulls the strings, the same antisemitic sentiments sweeping Europe will continue to accelerate in Ukraine.


According to reporting by Gabe Friedman in The Jewish News, Israel is preparing for increased immigration from the Jews of Ukraine, primarily through the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-governmental body that promotes and assists Jews in making aliyah. Another agency is Nativ, which is similar but focuses solely on Jews from the former Soviet Union. Additional support has come from the Fellowship of Christians & Jews, which helped fly 100 Jews out of Ukraine, last weekend.


No one knows if the U.S. and its allies’ tough talk and dramatic economic sanctions will impact Putin to end the conflict. His nuclear saber-rattling is ominous, indeed. It’s highly likely he anticipated anything the international community could do and nothing dissuaded his plans. The outlook for Ukraine, and Ukrainian Jews, is grim.


If it seems like everything and yet nothing has changed for the Jews of Europe and Ukraine over the last 77 years, you’re not entirely wrong.