Chaos in east Ukraine drives Jewish aliyah

‘Anxiety and fear’ due to volatile political situation leading to surge in emigration, community leaders say

Jews participate in a Havdalah ceremony in a synagogue in Odessa, Ukraine, 2012. (photo credit: CC BY-Senia L/Flickr)
Jews participate in a Havdalah ceremony in a synagogue in Odessa, Ukraine, 2012. (photo credit: CC BY-Senia L/Flickr)

KIEV, Ukraine — Chaos and criminal activity in eastern Ukraine are causing anxiety and increased emigration by Ukrainian Jews, according to local Jewish leaders.

“There is an increase in emigration by Jews from Ukraine, with 300 people immigrating to Israel in March alone,” Josef Zissels, chairman of the Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said Friday. ”This is not the result of any anti-Semitism but of anxiety and fear from criminal activity and chaos.”

But Zissels rejected recent reports that Jews were preparing to evacuate Odessa in southern Ukraine en masse. “These reports were false and of a provocative nature,” he said.

Zissels, who spoke at a roundtable discussion including about a dozen community leaders from Ukraine, was commenting on Jewish Agency for Israel figures that showed that 762 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel in the first quarter of 2014 — an increase of 52 percent over the average of 500 people who immigrated in the corresponding periods during 2009 to 2013. On average, 1,900 immigrants came to Israel from Ukraine per year in those years, according to Israel’s Absorption Ministry.

“There are bandits, men with rifles, who are patrolling the streets of some cities in eastern Ukraine and this is causing many Jews and non-Jews to want to leave,”  Zissels said.

The round-table was part of a symposium called Ukraine: Thinking Together that was organized by Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, the US embassy in Kiev and several other bodies, including Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, an international nonprofit organization established in 2008 to promote dialog between Ukrainian Jews, non-Jews and their Diasporas.

Haydar Alexander, CEO of the Reform movement in Ukraine, said a growing number of members of his community in Kiev were contemplating emigrating following the political upheaval that gripped Ukraine in November.

Ukraine will hold presidential elections on May 25, the first since the ouster from power in February of the government of former president Viktor Yanukovych.

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