What’s the latest in Ukraine? We answer your questions

Ukraine is home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities and its historical roots run deep.
People look at the exterior of a damaged residential block hit by an early morning missile strike on February 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Yesterday, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with Russian troops invading the country from the north, east and south, accompanied by air strikes and shelling. The Ukrainian president said that at least 137 Ukrainian soldiers were killed by the end of the first day. (Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The war in Ukraine continues and several of you, our readers, have reached out on social media asking us questions about the latest developments.

Our promise at Unpacked is that “we provide nuanced insights by unpacking all things Jewish,” so we are focusing on the Jewish and Israeli angles of this story (since we’re not experts on the whole situation on the ground). That’s not to discount the plight of Ukrainians, we just are not the right experts to explain the whole situation on the ground. We suggest reading up on the crisis here and here.

Is there antisemitism in Ukraine/is Ukraine a Nazi state?

Yes and no.

Yes there is antisemitism in Ukraine and no Ukraine is not a Nazi state. Let us explain.

Jews indiscriminately persecuted and kept in the arsenal at Kyiv in 1881 during the first pogrom. (Photo by HultonArchive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

Today, Jews in Ukraine generally do not face acts of violence or public condemnations of Israel, according to the American Jewish Committee’s report. 

In 2018, the Pew Research Center found Ukraine to be the most accepting of Jews among all Central and Eastern European countries.

This year Ukraine’s parliament passed a law criminalizing antisemitism as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). 

Despite this, antisemitism is not a thing of the past in Ukraine. The country has been historically reluctant to reckon with its role in the Holocaust, during which more than one million Jews were killed by the Nazis and local Ukrainian collaborators. 

Lwow, Ukraine, ghetto in the spring of 1942. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Jews of Ukraine account for a great proportion of the Soviet victims of the Holocaust with the worst massacre taking place at Babyn Yar outside Kyiv. During 1941–43 more than 100,000 Jews and others were killed at the site outside of Kyiv.

For some in Ukraine’s Jewish community, the current events have stirred up memories of past horrors, reported the New York Times.

“Though antisemitic violence is relatively rare in Odessa, some Jews are fearful that it could be unleashed by the chaos of war,” the article explained

Ukraine does have a growing neo-Nazi problem, but it is not a Nazi state despite how hard the Russians try to make the case.

The most known neo-Nazi group on Ukraine’s far right is the Azov movement. The movement grew out of the Azov Regiment (originally a battalion), formed in the chaos of war in early 2014. 

The Azov Movement is frequently cited by people who want to “give Putin a free pass to do what he wants in Ukraine,” explained journalist and expert on the Ukrainian far right, Michael Colborne. “It doesn’t in any way justify the actions of the Russian president.”

Why is Putin using “denazification” as a pretext for the invasion?

Russian President Vladimir Putin in a national address announcing the recognition of two Ukrainian breakaway provinces. (Source: Handout)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been bouncing around the “denazification” idea of Ukraine since at least 2014 when the Azov Movement was formed.

When Putin announced the “special military operation” in Ukraine he said said: “It’s goal is to protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide … for the last eight years. And for this we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.”

Putin is trying to make the case that the Azov Movement is larger than it is despite the fact that they have zero elected leaders in power. The party won barely 2% of the vote in a coalition with other far-right parties in parliamentary elections in 2019. Estimates of membership are around 10,000 members

Ukraine is a democratic country whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected in a free and fair election in which he amassed more than 70% of the vote. Zelensky is Jewish and lost family in the Holocaust.

How is Israel responding to the Russian strike that damaged Babyn Yar?

Soviet POWs covering a mass grave after the Babyn Yar massacre. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The immediate reports following the shelling of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial site indicated that the site was damaged or destroyed. Follow up reporting now indicates that the site is still in tact following the bombardment.

Is Israel siding with Ukraine?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photos: Ukrainian T.V., left; Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, middle; Russian State T.V., right)

Israel voted at the United Nations to condemn the Russian invasion.

Israel is also playing the role of diplomatic mediator between Ukraine, Russia and the West.

According to reports, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has taken on a “messenger” or intermediary role between Ukraine and Russia, communicating proposals on behalf of the two countries. It seems Bennett is the only world leader who has spoken directly to both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Israeli prime minister even made the rare decision to travel on Shabbat (Bennett is Orthodox) to meet face to face with Putin.

What’s Putin’s relationship with Jews? What is Jewish life like in Russia?

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the remembrance hall of the Holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem April 28, 2005 in Jerusalem, Israel. Putin presented Israel with a harrowing bronze sculpture which depicts the suffering of the Holocaust, during his historic visit to the Jewish state. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Putin is Russian Orthodox and under his reign he has supported limited religious freedoms in Russia (despite trying to bring religious denominations more under state control).

Today the Jewish community of Russia is still closely monitored and rabbis are not free to speak out or condemn Russian actions or positions that go against the government’s official lines.

Polish authorities announced on March 9th that they “assisted a Russian rabbi who is in opposition to Putin to leave Europe to reach Israel.”

Russia’s chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, said in 2011 Putin “paid great attention to the needs of our community and related to us with a deep respect.”

But the Russian president is also not beyond playing politics with the Jews.

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in July of 2021 Putin denied “Ukrainians’ existence as a distinct national group … insisting that just like Jewish communities around the world, ‘Russians and Ukrainians are a single people.’”

Speaking during his annual televised call-in show, in which the authoritarian leader fields questions from citizens, Putin declared that “the single Russian people” had been divided “under the influence of external factors” and that while “the current authorities of modern Ukraine are clearly unfriendly to us,” this does not mean that the two people are not one.

“See for yourself,” he said. “The Jews come to Israel from Africa, Europe, and other countries. Black people arrive from Africa, right? Those arriving from Europe speak Yiddish, rather than Hebrew. Although they are diverse, the Jewish people, nevertheless, cherished its unity.”

Ukraine’s Jewish president responded back in a statement saying, Ukrainians are “definitely not one people.”

How many Jewish refugees have been evacuated?

United Hatzallah volunteers at the Ukraine-Moldova border. (Courtesy: United Hatzallah)

Ukraine is home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities and its historical roots run deep. It is the birthplace of some of Judaism’s most distinctive ideologies and traditions – the Hasidic movement emerged out of Ukraine and the country has a rich legacy of Yiddish culture.

Today, it’s hard to calculate Ukraine’s Jewish population accurately and estimates range from 49,000 to 400,000, and like everyone in the country they are in danger.

Already the Jewish communities of Uman and Odessa have been evacuated but many more people are stuck in the war zone including the capital Kyiv.

Hundreds of Jewish refugees have already made their way to Israel and 15,000 are expected to arrive by the end of March. Israel has also pledged to take in an additional 25,000 non-Jewish refugees.

What do the people of Ukraine need?

People wait for buses at a bus station as they attempt to evacuate the city on February 24, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Overnight, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with explosions reported in multiple cities and far outside the restive eastern regions held by Russian-backed rebels. (Photo: Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

Right now access to basic supplies is limited and shortages of goods are reported across Ukraine. Further complicating relief efforts is the shutdown of transportation due to a swell of refugees trying to make their way away from the fighting.

Several Jewish organizations, along with the Israeli government, are on the ground coordinating efforts.

  • The Jewish Agency is working to assist refugees to get to Moldova and has opened a hotline for assistance. 
  • HIAS is working with NGOs in place in Ukraine to provide assistance to refugees.
  • United Hatzalah is coordinating with its Ukraine chapter to get people out of areas where there is fighting and to provide medical assistance to those who are injured.
  • JDC is on the ground in Ukraine providing meals to the elderly and children.