Israel and aid groups ready to help Ukrainian Jewry in case of war

Steel columns of the Mirror Field audio-visual installation at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv, September 14, 2021. (Oksana Parafeniuk/for The Washington Post)

KYIV, Ukraine — Israeli officials and relief groups are making plans to help Ukraine’s Jewish community in the event of an all-out war between Ukraine and Russia, according to people familiar with the process.

Officials and agencies are playing on contingencies, including handling a new wave of immigrants coming to Israel and helping displaced Jews in Ukraine, as they did in 2014 when Russian forces annexed Crimea to Ukraine and that Russian-backed separatists have started a conflict in eastern Ukraine. In the worst case, the plans could mean the direct evacuation of thousands of refugees.

Privately, Israeli officials make it clear that they do not expect national chaos that would require a massive airlift. But Israel would be ready to act if necessary, they said, as the country has done in other trouble spots. Two people involved in the process confirmed meetings had taken place, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential planning.

Over 36 hours in May 1991, Israeli Air Force and commandeered El Al jumbo jets transported more than 14,000 Ethiopians from war-torn Addis Ababa, an operation overseen by the current Israeli Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz.

“We are prepared for all scenarios,” said Pnina Tamano-Shata, Israel’s Minister of Immigration and Absorption, the government branch responsible for facilitating the arrival of Jews from all over the world, according to Israeli media Ynet. .

As many as 100,000 Jews live in Ukraine, according to Yael Branovsky of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in Jerusalem. The aid group was deeply involved in helping thousands of Jews who were displaced from Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region when war broke out in 2014.

Officials from Israel’s defense and foreign ministries and other security branches met in January to assess the possible wartime needs of Jewish communities in Ukraine, according to a report in the Haaretz newspaper and confirmed by two people who participated in the planning but spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the reports, saying only that it was preparing its own Ukrainian citizens for the possibility of unrest. At Israel’s request, some 4,000 Israelis living in the country have registered with the embassy in Kiev since late January, according to ministry spokesman Lior Haiat.

On Friday, an Israeli adviser said its citizens should consider leaving Ukraine immediately and that it would begin evacuating family members of embassy staff.

The history of Judaism in Ukraine, which dates back more than a millennium, is both rich and tragic. Hasidism has its roots in Ukrainian Jews, and communities here have flourished in different periods of history. But they suffered pogroms and massacres of inconceivable brutality at other times, including during the tsarist era, communist revolutions and the Holocaust.

More recently, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine has divided a vibrant Jewish community of at least 30,000 people centered around the city of Donetsk, according to Pinchas Vishedski, who was the city’s chief rabbi until that the war drove him to flee to Kiev with many others.

Some Jewish members chose to stay in the east, Vishedski said, especially older residents who felt it was too difficult to disrupt their lives. Many of them feel comfortable living in the Russian-dominated region.

“They live with a lot of propaganda,” he said. “When I talk to them, they think they have it better than us.”

But most of its former Jewish community fled the fighting, with some heading immediately to Israel and others resettling elsewhere in Ukraine, mainly in and around Kyiv. Jewish relief agencies turned a youth summer camp near the capital into a refugee center for families who often arrived with little more than a suitcase, Branovsky said.

Several agencies, including the IFCJ, the Jewish Agency and the New York-based Joint Distribution Committee, worked to resettle the families. They provided food, clothing and, later, money for rent. As the Passover holiday fell at the start of the crisis, one group delivered 53,000 boxes of matzoh across the country.

Nearly eight years later, the families are still struggling to rebuild their lives hundreds of miles from areas where they have lived for generations, said Vishedski, who now bears the title of chief rabbi of the Donbas refugee Jewish community and Crimean.

“It’s been very intense and we’re still struggling,” Vishedski said in his new office next to a hookah bar in Kiev’s historic Podil district. “It was very scary but we lived it.”

But the rabbi doesn’t expect many of his followers to flee to Israel even now, and finds the rhetoric of mass evacuations to be overblown.

“No one in Israel told us about it,” he said.

A Ukrainian named Shaul, who spoke out on the condition that his surname not be used to protect his privacy, has fled his home once. Her family of four left their apartment in Donetsk in the spring of 2014 with luggage for a honeymoon. Don’t come back, his neighbors had warned at the time, the police station is burning and your block is a war zone.

Nearly eight years later, they live in a 25-story building in Kyiv, where Shaul works remotely as a team leader for a Boston-based tech company. In his kitchen, he described the trauma of not seeing the town where three generations of his family grew up – he still pays the charges on his property there so it won’t be confiscated – but also his desire to stay. in Ukraine even through another war.

“If it’s really bad, we’ll go to Israel,” said Shaul, 43. “But I have my profession here, my community here, my rabbi here. This is where we want to stay.

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv. Alex Sipigin contributed to this report.

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