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Across the Former Soviet Union Ukraine’s Jews Say Fear Led to Low Numbers in Recent Census

February 7, 2003
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Ukraine’s first national census since independence took into account a number of demographic factors, but perhaps not the “fear factor.”

That, at least, is how many observers are explaining the discrepancy between their estimates that some 250,000 to 500,000 Jews live in Ukraine and the 103,591 counted in the 2001 census, which was released in late December 2002.

“Many people are afraid to say that they’re Jews,” said the chief rabbi of Kiev, Moshe-Reuven Azman. “Right now we have a democracy and everything is fine, but you never know what will happen. We don’t know the future but we have a history here, and we’re afraid.”

Ukraine’s last census, conducted in 1989 when it was still part of the Soviet Union, counted some 52 million people, including 487,300 Jews.

Since that time, emigration and a low birth rate have contributed to an overall decrease in Ukraine’s population by almost 3 million people, to the current total of slightly less than 48.5 million.

Freedom of movement and a deteriorating economy have led thousands of Ukrainian Jews to move to Israel or to countries such as Germany and the United States. Even accounting for that, however, many observers say the census’ Jewish numbers don’t add up.

Azman said many Jews didn’t disclose their ethnic identity, preferring to opt for the security of belonging to a majority group.

“Ten years ago, people had a Soviet passport and had no choice over what nationality was recorded in it, but now they have a Ukrainian passport and don’t have to indicate” another nationality, he said.

The practice may go back even further: A doctor working at a private medical clinic in Kiev, who identified herself only as Anya, said that after her parents’ personal documents were lost during World War II they chose to suppress their Jewish identity, even after the war ended.

She said she has many friends in a similar situation, raised in families where Jewish traditions are passed from generation to generation, but official Jewish identity is not.

“My parents knew how difficult life could be for Jews in Ukraine and changed their identity,” Anya said. “So if the government wants to know about my status, it will never find out.”

Alex Kupershtein, a Lviv-born Israeli citizen and director of the Makabi restaurant in Kiev, agreed.

“I have a lot of friends in Kiev whose parents are still afraid to say that they are Jewish,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Ukraine’s State Statistics Committee said the committee could not interpret the 2001 census results.

“But personally,” she said, “I think the numbers look right when you consider the emigration that has taken place.”

The spokeswoman added that more details on ethnicity in Ukraine would be available when the census is released in published form later this year.

But most Jewish groups aren’t waiting to express their conviction that Jews have been vastly undercounted.

According to surveys by the Jewish Agency for Israel, there are 215,000 to 220,000 Jews in Ukraine, said Alex Katz, head of Jewish Agency operations in Ukraine and Moldova.

“I hope that at least in the case of the major Ukrainian cities we’ll succeed in finding more Jews than have been counted now,” he said.

Other Jewish leaders agree. The chief rabbi of Ukraine, Ya’akov Dov Bleich, said the real number is closer to half a million Jews, or five times the census figure.

Josef Zissels, chairman of the Va’ad umbrella group of Jewish organizations in Ukraine, said that at least 150,000 Ukrainians are Jewish according to Jewish law, meaning that they have a Jewish mother. Including those with a Jewish spouse or at least one Jewish grandparent, some 400,000 individuals would qualify to immigrate to Israel under the Jewish state’s Law of Return, he said.

The census figure makes sense only if it counts those people with two Jewish parents, he said.

Zissels said it would be helpful to have a better understanding of the number of Jews and their position in Ukrainian society. He’s hoping to find funding for a census of his own, which he believes will provide more accurate results.

“I’d like to conduct a census that deals not only with demographics but which is also sociological,” Zissels said. “That way we’d understand better how Jews in Ukraine are living, what schools they attend, what newspapers they read and who their parents and grandparents are.”

Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, also believes the census figure may represent just a partial picture. The New York-based group assists community-building and renewal efforts by Ukrainian Jews.

“In the last 10 years, under the welcoming policy of the Ukrainian government, the JDC helped dozens of new communal Jewish organizations evolve in Ukraine,” Schwager said. “Those organizations alone reach a number of Jews far larger than the figure quoted in the census.”

The JDC said the census results won’t affect the group’s work in Ukraine, where it is best known for its Chesed system of welfare programs for elderly Jews.

Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine umbrella group, said that after speaking with many elderly recipients of JDC-sponsored programs he understands the fear factor Azman cites.

“Many older Jews told me they did not put their nationality in the questionnaire, because even after 10 years of Ukrainian independence they are still afraid to show their Jewish origins,” he said. “I assume that more than 200,000 Jews did not answer correctly.”

Ukrainian Jews are not alone in seeking shelter amid the majority when dealing with the government. The 2001 census also saw a decrease in the number of people identifying themselves as ethnic Russians and an increase in the number of ethnic Ukrainians, who make up nearly 78 percent of the population.

Oleksy Haran, director of the School for Policy Analysis at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, explained that in 1989 more people identified themselves as Russians because of a desire to belong to the largest ethnic group in the Soviet Union.

Adding to the Ukrainian Jews’ conundrum, some may not be sure whether Jewishness is based on ethnicity, as it was in Soviet times, or on religious beliefs, a component of identity that has grown stronger in the past decade.

Then, of course, there are mixed marriages where the Jewish partner is content to identify himself or herself by the nationality of the spouse — particularly if the children are being raised in a secular way and are attending Ukrainian or Russian schools.

But Yana Yanover, director of the Jewish Education Center in Kiev, argues that the fear factor can’t be underestimated.

“It’s a tradition of fear stemming from Soviet times,” Yanover said. “People don’t know what those census-takers who knock on their doors will do with that information — and they don’t know who will be knocking on their doors the next time.”

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