Jewish refugees from Donetsk: We want an “iron dome”
The war in eastern Ukraine has turned hundreds of thousands of people into refugees, and many of them have nowhere to go. The Jewish Agency (Sokhnut) took part in evacuating Jews from the military zone, and some refugees were placed in a temporary camp organized by the agency.
Tamara (on the left of the photo) was first recovered from the shock and went out on to the camp grounds. Before the dawn she and a group of other refugees left Donetsk, where the previous week alone over 10 people had been killed. Several hours later they arrived at the camp, where warm rooms and hot food were waiting for hem. The camp is located at a summer leisure base by a river bank.
“I left everything I had in Donetsk,” Tamara said after she completed registration in the place that will become her home for the next few months before she leaves for Israel. “I already want to go back. I’m going to Israel temporarily, my home will still be here. My husband stayed at home with the pets. It was very hard for me to leave them.”
As she talked, Tamara started crying once more. Despite the pain, she realizes that she had no other choice: “It’s impossible to live there, bombs fell literally right next to our house every day.”
Around 20,000 Jews live in war zones in eastern Ukraine, between Donetsk and Lugansk. Over the last year, over 2,000 Jews from this region have moved to Israel. And the tendency is such that the number of new repatriates from this region is only increasing.
Maxim and Natali Luriya, the coordinators of Sokhnut in Dnepropetrovsk, say: “We came here 10 months ago and we were certain that we would mainly work on Jewish education. In fact, we started taking people out of war zones, and we now run a refugee camp. Every day, we hear touching and troubling stories from people. We couldn’t imagine that we would encounter this here.”
Under cover of neutrality
Snow is the first thing that you notice when you land in Ukraine. Through the window everything looks white and peaceful, even pastoral. But on the ground you start to notice military planes and helicopters… You see checkpoints and armed vehicles, and even for guests from Israel this military presence seems unusual. The war in Ukraine has been going on for almost a year, and another escalation began last month.
On one side of the system are the militia and army controlled by Putin. The militia’s position is the demand to recognize the referendum as unlawful and to join the eastern part of Ukraine to Russia. The separatists claim that the Ukrainian government infringes the rights of citizens with Russian ancestry, and so they supposedly have no other choice but to demand separation from the country.
On the other side of the barricades is the Ukrainian government, which is trying to protect its sovereignty and preserve territorial integrity. Between the hammer and the anvil are peaceful citizens who have become hostages of the situation.
The state of Israel decided to maintain neutrality at the early stages of the conflict. This position has drawn heavy criticism from Israel’s allies in the West, who see Putin’s Russia as the greatest threat to world order and stability.
However, for people taking part in the operation to save the Jews of Donbass, Israel’s position looks very convenient. Both sides of the conflict allow the rescue operation to run smoothly.
During our visit to the camp, there were around 10 possible emigrants to Israel. We met some of them at a Hebrew lesson.
Vlad, 23, left Donetsk a week ago: “Donetsk was an absolutely normal city, I like the city very much. But since the war began, it’s become impossible to live there. Streets that once looked beautiful have now been completely destroyed. No one can say when it will end. The more time goes by, the more difficult the situation becomes.”
Unlike most emigrants, Vlad has visited Israel, as part of an educational program. “There’s a war in Israel, I know, but your government looks after its citizens,” said Vlad’s mother, Bella. “Additionally, we know about the “iron dome”.
“Do they like Putin in Israel?”
The number of Jews leaving for Israel from East Ukraine is increasing. At the same time, there are also people who return to Ukraine to help the country in the war with the foreign enemy.
In Dnepropetrovsk, which is one hour’s drive from the refugee camp, we met Arye Leib (Leonid), a Jewish volunteer in the Ukrainian army.
Arye Leib came to the meeting that was held at Menorah (the Jewish center in Dnepropetrovsk) in his military uniform. When he entered the hall, Leonid kissed the mezuzah. This looked strange for us Israelis: the Eastern European uniform which is associated with the history of pogroms and terror and kissing the mezuzah make for an odd combination. Arye’s explanation was simple: “I am a Jew, a citizen of Ukraine. The Russians attacked Ukraine by force. Ukrainians must protect themselves from this occupation and aggression.”
Before the war, he lived in Donetsk and worked in the textile industry. When the Ukrainian army stepped up its actions in the region in an attempt to repel pro-Russian elements, he quickly enlisted as a volunteer. The Israeli neutrality in this war disappoints him: “Israel should help Ukraine. We have similar values. Don’t you care about democracy?” When asked when the war would end, Leonid replied decisively: “Russia will collapse, Ukraine will win. Putin is leading Russia to catastrophe.”
At the Jewish center in Dnepropetrovsk we met Svetlana, a young Jewish woman who voluntarily helped to treat casualties on the frontline and give food and medicine to people in need. Sveta speaks Hebrew, which she learnt at the Jewish center. “I wanted to make tikun olam (correction of the world.).” She adds in English: “I’m Jewish and Ukrainian, but above all I’m a human being. I didn’t ask the people I helped about their political preferences. I simply wanted to help.”
One of the most interesting and unusual phenomena of the Ukrainian war is that both sides try to show a good attitude towards Jews, at least so far. In the past, every war led to pogroms of Jewish communities to some extent. This time, in the attempt to gain international legitimacy and a good attitude from the media, each side in the war tries to present the enemy as fascists and racists, and to present itself as fighters for values of freedom and democracy. So Jews are of great value for both sides: the first side which is accused of anti-Semitism will lose international support.
There are Jews who support Leonid’s pro-Ukrainian position – we met a lot of them when we were in Kiev. This will be the topic of a separate article. But there are also Jews who think otherwise. We talked with a pensioner couple in their seventies at the camp who were forced to leave their home in Donetsk and flee the bombing in one day. They were quite categorical about the Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko – “he talks like a fascist!”, and accuse the Ukrainian army of “bombing its own citizens”. These grave statements provoked a big argument, which ended a few minutes later, but without anyone changing their opinions.
The only thing that all the refugees agree on is that they must look for a better life in another place. Vlad says that he feels optimistic about moving to Israel: “My mother always said that Israel was our historic home. And when the war began here, she said that the time had come to go there, that now our home would be there. I hope to find a good job there and start a family. That’s all, I don’t expect anything else. I think that Israel will be a better place for my children than Ukraine”.
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