Backgrounder in Ukraine, the East-west Divide is One the Jewish Community Knows Well

The east-west divide that is one of the cores of Ukraine’s current political crisis has deep historical roots, and affects the country’s Jews as well. Eastern Ukraine long has been under Russian influence. This part of the country holds the overwhelming majority of Ukraine’s industrial resources, contributing up to 80 percent of the country’s GDP.

Eastern Ukraine is the bedrock of support for Viktor Yanukovich, who won this month’s presidential election, though the results have been discredited.

In contrast, much of western Ukraine, which in the Nov. 21 election supported opposition leader Viktor Yuschenko, has leaned westward in culture and religion.

Jews have lived in present-day Ukraine for more than 1,000 years.

The Jewish Pale of Settlement, the area of the Russian Empire to which Jews were confined after 1791, included all of the western and central provinces of Ukraine. The high concentration of Jews there created a rich Jewish life, said Leonid Finberg, director of the Kiev-based Institute for Jewish Studies, a leading center for Ukrainian Jewish scholarship.

“Historically, the level of Jewish community development was always higher in western and central Ukraine,” Finberg said.

“These lands were a birthplace of Chasidism,” he said, referring to the religious trend born in central Ukraine in the second half of 18th century, which gained popularity across Eastern Europe.

The Jewish community in eastern Ukraine began to develop only at the beginning of the 20th century, Finberg said. Today, however, more than 60 percent of Ukrainian Jews — who are estimated at anywhere between 250,000 and 500,000 — live in the east.

Between the 1880s and the 1920s, several waves of pogroms hit Jews in eastern and southern Ukraine especially hard.

Jews in western Ukraine, who at the time were Polish or Austro-Hungarian subjects, suffered less anti-Semitism than their brethren under czarist rule.

“The cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence were relatively rare in the west compared to the east,” said Aleksandr Naiman, a historian of Ukrainian Jewry living in Kiev. “Historically, the authorities in the west of Ukraine were more tolerant to Jews.”

Some 600,000 Jews — or 40 percent of the area’s prewar Jewish population — died during the Holocaust in Ukraine, which was completely under Nazi occupation. Nazi-initiated pogroms often were carried out or aided by local collaborators, many of whom considered Jews Soviet agents.

“The proportion of those who collaborated with the Nazis was approximately equal in different regions of Ukraine,” Naiman said. “And the number of those who were recognized as Righteous Gentiles was much higher in the west” of Ukraine than in other regions.

In the wake of Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, western Ukraine became a cradle for nationalism that spearheaded heated public debates about Ukrainians’ identity and historical fate.

These debates often were wrapped in anti-Semitic and chauvinist rhetoric that blasted Russians and Jews for their alleged roles in the destruction of Ukrainian statehood in the early part of the 20th century.

The image of western Ukraine as an area where anti-Semitic and chauvinist feelings remain widespread still lingers — but the image is unfair, some Jewish leaders argue.

“We never experienced any anti-Semitism while living” in the Rovno and Ternopol regions, said Aleksandr Gaidar, executive director of the Association of Reform Jewish congregations in Ukraine, referring to two western provinces. “In fact, I met with anti-Semitic attitudes more often when we moved to Kharkov,” he said, referring to Ukraine’s second largest city.

Kharkov, located in the east, today is home to one of the country’s largest Jewish communities.

The large concentration of Jews in Ukraine’s eastern and southern provinces usually is attributed to two factors.

The high level of industrial development of those provinces long has offered better employment opportunities to all Ukrainians, including Jews.

In addition, Jews in the western part of Ukraine were the first to begin emigrating from the Soviet Union to Israel and United States in the early 1970s. Several waves of Jewish emigration from the west have left many once numerous communities virtually without Jews.

Many Jews now are concerned about Ukrainian nationalism, which is associated with the west, and Russian chauvinism, which is more common in the east and south.

Experts note that over the last several years more synagogues were vandalized and more Orthodox Jews harassed in the street in eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, and in Kiev, than in other parts of the country.

Jewish leaders say they don’t expect anti-Semitism to increase as a result of the current crisis, unless violence increases more generally.

But some observers predict a growth in aliyah and Jewish emigration from Ukraine if the current crisis is not resolved swiftly.

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