Ukrainian Jews in Israel Try to Make Sense of It All

There is no consensus among Ukrainian immigrants to Israel as to which side to support in Kiev.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

When Elizabet Noga recently posted on Facebook that she was about to attend a protest rally outside the Ukrainian embassy in Tel Aviv, she received an angry phone call from her mother in Kharkov.

““Don’t go,’ she told me. ‘We don’t need your support,’” recounts the Jewish 23-year-old, who immigrated to Israel 18 months ago. “My parents have very different views from me about what’s going on. They say the protestors are fascists and anti-Semites because that’s how they view things being so close to Russia. But I have lots of friends who are taking part in the protests and what’s driving them is not anti-Semitism but the desire for a better life.”

Noga, an only child, first arrived in Israel on a study abroad program sponsored by Masa, a joint venture of the government and the Jewish Agency. After she completed the program, she decided to make the move permanent. “I came for the same reasons many other young Jews come here,” notes Noga, who works today in a Tel Aviv-based high-tech company. “I fell in love with the country, and it’s a better place to live than Ukraine.”

That doesn’t mean she’s not following the political drama unfolding where she came from almost obsessively these days. “I stream the 24/7 news channel, and I’m in touch with my friends there constantly to see what’s going on,” reports Noga.

The disagreements within her immediate family reflect some of the ambivalence many Ukrainian Jews feel about the breaking news events taking place back there these days.

Anna Vainer, a 34-year-old Ukrainian Jew who now lives in Israel, feels much less connected to what’s happening in her place of birth. It could be because she’s been living in Israel for the past 23 years already. “It’s hard to say that what’s happening there is causing me great pain or that I consider Ukraine my second home,” says Vainer, today the director of the Hillel campus organization at the University of Haifa and the Technion.

Aside from one uncle left behind, the rest of her relatives from Kiev left the country long ago. He and other acquaintances living in the Ukrainian capital have reported to her that they are preparing for the worst, stocking up on food and pulling their money out of the banks. However, they are not yet thinking of fleeing to Israel or elsewhere. “It’s still too early for that,” she says.

Noga and Vainer are among the almost 340,000 Ukrainian Jews who have moved to Israel since the early 1990s, part of what has come to be known as the huge Russian immigration wave. But according to Alex Selsky, CEO of the World Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry, that’s a misnomer.

“Of the million immigrants who came,” he says, “the Ukrainians, not the Russians, were the largest group. There were about 340,000 Ukrainians, compared with 320,000 Russians. The rest came from all the other republics.”

He estimates that about 200,000 Jews “and their family members” remain in the country today.

Probably the best-known Israeli of Ukrainian descent who was part of that immigration wave is Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin (Likud), a native of Kharkov.

Figures provided by the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption show that in the past five years, close to 2,000 Jews from Ukraine have settled in Israel each year, their favorite destination by far the northern port city of Haifa, followed by two other seaside towns: Bat Yam and Ashdod.

Selsky, whose family also has roots in Ukraine but has no one left there now, predicts that events of recent month will spark a rise in emigration to Israel. “That’s always been the effect of developments like these,” he says.

Shimon Briman, a local expert on the Ukrainian Jewish community, agrees. “I think there’s a good chance that the political turmoil in Ukraine − and even more significantly, the collapse of the economy there − is going to cause a new wave of emigration from the country,” predicts Briman, who works as the Israel editor for Forum, an American-Jewish Russian-language newspaper based in New York.

Briman, who moved to Israel from Kharkov in 1996, still maintains close ties with Jewish community leaders and rabbis in Ukraine. “There’s definitely a prevailing sense of fear,” he says, “but it has less to do with actual events in recent days and more to do with the economic and political instability in the country. On the one hand, the government that fell wasn’t anti-Semitic, but it was so corrupt that many Jews were glad it fell. Today, however, they’re worried about the future. [But] even the nationalists in the opposition, aside from a few isolated incidents, never showed any real signs of anti-Semitism.”

Many of the Ukrainian Jews living in Israel, he says, tend to see things through the eyes of the media they watch. “Most of them watch the Russian TV stations, and that has a big effect on them. There’s only one Ukrainian station that broadcasts in Israel, so that tends to color the way they see things.”

Not for Biana Kleyner, though, who does not hesitate to declare which side she’s on. “My family and I are quite liberal and were very much against all the corruption going on,” says the 28-year-old high-techie, who lives in Tel Aviv. “Ukraine was certainly not a properly functioning Western democracy, and things simply came to a head.”

Kleyner moved to Israel from Kiev when she was five years old and says she still has distant memories of her hometown. But her real connection to the place has to do with the dozen or so relatives the family left behind. “I grew up in Ashkelon, and whenever we had missiles landing near us from Gaza, our relatives in Kiev would be Skyping us every day because they were really concerned. Now, it’s us Skyping them constantly and worried about what’s going on there.”

Having never visited the country since she left back in 1990, Kleyner had been planning on taking a trip in the near future to visit her relatives. “I decided to take their advice and hold off for now,” she says.

Pro-Ukrainian activists rally in front of the Crimean parliament in Semfiropol, Feb. 26, 2014.Credit: AFP
Ukrainian immigrants to Israel could only watch and worry as Pro-European protesters clashed with riot police in Kiev.Credit: Reuters

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