Mark Levin has served as the executive director of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (formerly the National Conference on Soviet Jewry) since 1992. He first visited Russia in 1982, leading a congressional delegation meeting Soviet officials and Jewish activists. He was instrumental in creating the Congressional Coalition for Soviet Jews and was a major organizer of the Washington Mobilization on behalf of Soviet Jewry that brought more than 250,000 people to Washington in 2007. He spoke with The Jewish Week about the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. This is an edited transcript.
Q: How large is the Ukrainian Jewish community?
A: Our best guess is that it is between 300,000 and 350,000. That would make it the fifth largest in the world, behind the U.S., Israel, France and Russia.
Many Ukrainian Jews are said to be prosperous and to have a vibrant communal life, with perhaps as many as four rabbis claiming to be the chief rabbi of Kiev. How are they faring amid the political and military turmoil in their country?
Overall, the community is experiencing the same problems and challenges as the larger Ukrainian population.
It is said that 120,000 people in Ukraine have been displaced. How many Jews are in the conflict areas?
About 20 percent of the country is in conflict. The number of Jews in those areas is about 40,000 — 15 to 20 percent of the Jewish population. For instance, in Donetsk in the eastern part of Ukraine we estimate that there were 18,000 Jews, but we do not know how many are there now. And in Crimea, there were 10,000-15,000 Jews, but we know that people have been moving since the Russian annexation.
In what sections of the country are the Jews concentrated?
Most of the Jews live in central, eastern and southern Ukraine. The largest Jewish population is in Kiev, followed by Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk and Cherkassy.
Do the Jews favor closer ties with Russia or the West?
Evidence we have seen suggests that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian Jews want to look to the West. Even in the eastern and southern areas, there is almost a 50-50 split.
In April, Jews in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk were handed leaflets telling them to “register” with pro-Russian militants, list their property and pay a registration fee or lose their citizenship. Those leaflets were later discredited, but it shook up the Jewish community.
This was such a heinous act; we still don’t know who was responsible. But the fact that they would be comfortable replicating something the Nazis did every time they entered a new town is vile. If any positive came out of this, it is the strong reaction from local and national Ukrainian authorities that almost immediately came out and condemned this act.
The Donetsk Jewish community leadership said the flyers were intended to incite conflict.
It was another in a series of provocations that tried to paint the Ukrainian government as a fascist, neo-political, Nazi, anti-Semitic entity. But on the contrary, the government has been quite forceful in seeking to find out who was responsible and in denouncing them.
Has there been a repeat of such anti-Semitic incidents?
We have not seen more.
Yet thousands of Ukrainians still make an annual pilgrimage to the grave of a 13-year-old boy whose mysterious death 103-years-ago they attribute to Jews who killed him to use his blood to make matzah for Passover.
There has been anti-Semitism in Ukraine, there is anti-Semitism in Ukraine and there will be. The question is how does the government and civil society address the ebbs and flows of anti-Semitism.
Openly anti-Semitic parties have been in Ukraine since the country’s independence in 1991. How strong are they?
These parties come and go and right now there are two prominent ones; one is part of the ruling coalition government. In the recent presidential election, the two right-wing candidates got less than 2 percent of the vote combined, while the only announced Jewish candidate got more than 2 percent.