Reports of Escalating Violence
The violent confrontations around government buildings throughout eastern Ukraine are escalating, with pro-Russian protesters demanding independence from Kiev and a constitutional change for federalization, while Ukrainian forces try to retake the regional administrations’ buildings and many other groups involved in demonstrations and armed clashes. Chaos has become the norm – people are reported to disappear without a trace, and some are beaten to death in the streets, while dozens of others are reported to be shot.
The escalation reached a new level on Tuesday April 28, with an assassination attempt at Kharkov Mayor Gennady Kernes (of Jewish origin). The Mayor was jogging on a highway when he was shot in the back by an unknown gunman. He was severely wounded and operated on in a local hospital. The operating surgeon said that Kernes’ condition is life-threatening, and refused to make any predictions. The next day Kernes was brought to Israel with a special flight.
Similarly, the local economy has taken a turn for the worse. Our emissaries in Ukraine report that local employers have had to cut wages by a third, at minimum, as production has slowed down all over Ukraine and demand is on the decline. Small independent business owners – restaurants, repair shops, garage operators – are left without customers, as money is scarce and as people are cautious to spend. The erosion of the local currency (by about 40%) makes it close to impossible for prospective emigrants to sell homes and property.
In a region gripped by anarchy and violence, several anti-Semitic incidents have been reported lately:
- On April 27 (Holocaust Memorial Day celebrated in Israel), the 71st birthday of the Galician of Waffen SS Division, which consisted of ethnic Ukrainians, was celebrated in the streets of Lvov. About a thousand people took part in the march in honor of the Division, though the Head of the Lvov Regional Administration asked residents not to participate.
- On April 22, a monument to the Holocaust victims was desecrated in Sevastopol in Crimea. Established in 2003, this memorial is located in the place where 4,200 Jews were murdered in 1942 by Nazis. After the local Jewish community complained, a criminal file was opened by the police to investigate.
- The militant group that has captured the town of Slovyansk launched a TV channel in order to “attack Zionist broadcasting”, as they put it in an opening program.
- A synagogue in Nikolaev was attacked on Friday night of April 18. Two firebombs were thrown at a door and at a window.
- As previously reported, an anti-Semitic provocation in Donetsk on April 15, involved distributed leaflets near a synagogue, ordering Jews to register with the Nationalities Commissioner and pay $50 or lose their citizenship and face deportation.
- As I heard today from our emissary in Donetsk, the Jewish community was advised by the authorities of the city to refrain from organizing mass events and celebrations on May 9 (the WWII Victory Day traditionally celebrated in the FSU countries) in order to avoid possible anti-Semitic provocations.
Aliyah and the Activities of the Jewish Agency
As previously reported, The Jewish Agency offices throughout Ukraine have seen significant growth in Aliyah numbers, as well as in prospective olim seeking information and assistance. The security situation continues to be concerning, and our local coordinators are working non-stop in order to provide whatever help they can.
The tendency of growing Aliyah is continuing in the registration for Aliyah flights to Israel for May and the following months. About 777 new immigrants have arrived in Israel from Ukraine with the flights of the Jewish Agency in January-April. This is 142% more than during the same months of last year. The most significant growth of new immigrants is noted from Odessa and the region (+315%) Dnepropetrovsk (+266%), Kharkov (+124%). 71 new immigrants have arrived from Simferopol, growth of 294%. This tendency will continue in the next months as over 200 new immigrants have already registered in Ukraine for May flights and the registration for June is still growing. All of these numbers are not final and do not include those who have changed their status from tourists to new olim in Israel.
In addition to the work of RSJ Unit’s Aliyah coordinators in Simferopol, Odessa, Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov and smaller surrounding towns, the Global Center of the Jewish Agency is assisting both in answering phone inquiries from Ukraine and in holding marketing operations for different regions of Ukraine. As our emissaries report, some people are afraid to leave their homes amidst the violence; informational assistance by phone is becoming an increasingly valuable and necessary tool.
All Jewish Agency offices in Ukraine remain open and activities continue:
In Ukraine, our reports show that local Jews find they are faced with two difficult options: to either close oneself at home and not leave, or to emigrate to Israel.
Our programs – ulpanim, Sunday schools, aliyah consulting, and community events – offer invaluable support to local traumatized communities, strengthening their faith in the future, in an active Jewish life, and in the knowledge that Israel is always there as a Jewish homeland and as a beacon of hope.
Entrance exams for Na'aleh were held at Jewish Agency offices in Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, and Odessa, with 291 candidates. An additional professional team of the Jewish Agency and the Na’aleh professionals is planned for May, as some 30-40 new candidates are registered in Kiev and the towns of Vinnitza, Chernigov, Chernovitz, Lvov and some others. (Na'aleh is a three-year study program in Israeli high schools; boarding and amenities are provided to students from the FSU.)
Between March 14 and April 14, interviews for Selah candidates were held in Ukraine (Selah is a 10-month academic preparatory course and Aliyah program for recent high school graduates from the FSU who immigrate to Israel prior to their parents or on their own.).
In today’s circumstances, representatives of the RSJ Unit and the Aliyah and Absorption Unit had to reinforce local staff resources, and several teams have been sent to Ukraine. These were highly professional and experienced teams who worked with both youth and their parents. 117 candidates for Na’aleh program were interviewed in Kiev, Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk and Odessa.
The members of the interviewers’ teams wrote: “Our general feeling is that the winds of war are blowing. This feeling strengthened during the interviews we conducted with children and especially with their parents…We met very particularly impressive children who are most likely to successfully integrate into Israeli society….To our surprise, we met wealthy parents, business people, who had not visited the offices of the Agency before the crisis…We have repeatedly encountered parents who are eager to send their children off from Ukraine as a first step for the whole family…We believe that we are living through a historic process today, which will probably bring even harder times. Suddenly, Israel is again seen as a real security alternative to what is taking place in Ukraine. We must not lose this momentum, and we have to increase the number of places for new olim from Ukraine and expand the number of participants in Selah.”
Unfortunately, resources allow for only 150 places in the Selah program, though we have at least 80 applicants more seeking opportunities in Israel. Additionally, as the needs grow more serious, so the costs keep rising. As summer camp season approaches, we anticipate parents to be afraid to send their children to camp during such a difficult situation. We are considering taking the children to Israel for the summer, and building a summer camp there for children from the troubled regions of Donetsk, Slovyansk, Kharkov, Odessa, and Crimea.