Nearly 2,000 members of the Ukraine Jewish community which numbers 65,000 people left for Israel in the first three months of 2015
A recent Guardian article highlighted yet another unfortunate side-effect of the war in Ukraine: the region’s Jewish population appears to be bolting for the exits in record numbers.
While the number of Jews emigrating from western Europe remained “more or less steady” despite a series of spectacular and horrific terrorist attacks, emigration to Israel from Eastern Europe increased sharply. During the first quarter of 2015, 1,971 people arrived in Israel from Ukraine a 215%(!) rise in comparison to the 625 who arrived in the same period last year. In Russia the absolute number (1,515) was roughly similar to Ukraine, but the percentage increase over 2014 (50%) while large was a bit less extreme.
The article, however, doesn’t give any indication as to the overall size of the Jewish population in either Ukraine or Russia. It’s thus rather hard to understand what the 1,971 and 1,515 numbers actually signify. Is that a tiny fraction of the total Jewish population or a large one?
Well quickly consulting the Jewish Federation of North America’s Berman Jewish DataBank and the most recently available survey of the world Jewish population, we learn that Russia’s Jewish population in 2013 was roughly 190,000 while Ukraine’s was 65,000.
Just in the first quarter of 2015, then, a little less than one percent (0.8%) of Russia’s total Jewish population emigrated to Israel while in Ukraine the equivalent figure was just north of 3%. If the rates from the first quarter are annualized, if emigration continues at the first quarter’s pace for the entire year, then by the end of 2015 3.2% of Russia’s Jewish population will have emigrated while in Ukraine the equivalent figure will be 12.1%. With rates of emigration that high, the Jewish communities in both countries would, for all practical purposes, soon cease to exist.
People, of course, ought to be free to choose where they want to live. If Ukrainian and Russian Jews genuinely feel that their futures will be safer and more secure in Israel then they should, of course, move there. But Jewish culture has had an enormous impact on both Ukraine and Russia for hundreds of years. Every conceivable field (literature, art, science, politics, and business) has been deeply influenced by people of Jewish descent. Yes, of course, there was also tragedy, violence, and discrimination, but there was also a lot more than that.
It’s true that after the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a million Jews emigrated from Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics to destinations in Western Europe, the United States, or Israel. Numerically speaking, Jewish communities in Eastern Europe have been in decline ever since the end of the Cold War. Those who remained, however, were freer than ever before to practice their religion free from persecution by the state. Recent years have seen a generally improving situation, and a modest renaissance of Jewish cultural and religious life throughout Eastern Europe. Yes it’s a low benchmark, but the region’s governments might very well be the most open and religiously tolerant that they’ve ever been.
It would be a terrible loss for everyone, Russians and Ukrainians most of all, if the Jewish communities in Russia and Ukraine were yet more casualties of the war in the Donbass. The initial data, however, indicate that this is precisely what is happening.