The Violent History—and Remarkable Transformation—of Jewish Life in Ukraine

When Russia attacked Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin stated that his goal was “denazification.” Historians agree that there is no substance to this claim—and that by invoking Nazism, Putin is attempting to weaponize the trauma of World War II to justify an invasion, and the many lives it has cost. 

The true story of Jewish life in Ukraine is more complex. Ukrainian Jews have a long history—and, indeed, a violent one. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews were killed in pogroms between 1918 and 1921. During the Holocaust, more than 1 million Jews in Ukraine perished.

It is difficult to say how large Ukraine’s Jewish population is today. Around 43,000 Ukrainians identify as Jewish, according to the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research. But a much larger number—around 200,000—qualify as Jews under the terms of Israel’s Law of Return.

What we do know for sure is: Today, life for Jews in Ukraine has changed dramatically. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish; many of his relatives, including all three of his grandfather’s brothers, died in the Holocaust. In 2019, he won the presidency with 73 percent of the vote. Compared with other countries, Ukraine scores fairly low on measurements of antisemitic incidents and attitudes. 

Moment managing editor Ellen Wexler spoke with Ira N. Forman, who was the Obama administration’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, about Jewish life in Ukraine—its fraught history, its remarkable evolution—and how it continues to affect the Russian invasion.


In broad strokes, how has antisemitism been manifested in Ukraine throughout its history?

Ukraine has had a significant Jewish population for at least 1,000 years. Until the division of Poland in the 18th century, much of today’s Ukraine was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. One of the great tragedies that afflicted the Jewish community during that period was the rebellion of the Cossacks against Polish rule in the 17th century. At the time, Jews often worked with Polish noblemen as farm managers or in similar jobs, and so during the uprising, the Cossacks carried out large massacres against the Jews. It was hugely traumatic—one of the worst pogroms in Jewish history at that time.

With the division of Poland in the 18th century, Ukraine became part of Imperial Russia, although the borders of what was then called Ukraine were not exactly the same as today’s. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had a large Jewish population—which grew further in the 19th century—and much of that territory became part of Russia. Most of the czars didn’t want Jews to live in the parts of Russia that did not include the newly acquired Polish territories, so Jews were permitted to live only in the Pale of Settlement, a region of the Russian Empire that includes a large part of today’s Ukraine. Well into the 20th century, it was one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. During this time, Jews faced the classical Christian antisemitism of the Russian Orthodox church. Under the czars of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Russian governments supported pogroms, encouraged Jewish emigration through economic strangulation of Jewish communities and supported efforts to assimilate and convert Jews.

Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 tens of thousands of Jews were massacred by White Russian, Soviet and Polish forces. These massacres, along with the Tsarist policies before the Revolution, resulted in a huge wave of immigration to the United States—primarily from Ukraine, but also from Belarus and what’s now Lithuania, Latvia, and Eastern Poland. Today, most Jews in the United States are from Ukraine and the other parts of the Russian Pale of Settlement.

Despite this, there was a very large Jewish population right before World War II. At this point, the Pale of Settlement no longer existed. The majority of the Jewish population lived in shtetls as well as the cities of what’s now Ukraine. But during the Holocaust, essentially all of Ukraine was conquered by the Nazis. If you didn’t get out you were most likely dead; one and a half million Jews were killed in Ukraine. The vast majority of Ukrainian Jews who survived were those who got out.

Then, of course, there was Soviet antisemitism, which increased after World War II. Jews were considered a nationality under Soviet rule. Your passport would be marked saying that you’re a Jew. Roles in government and many other professions were very constrained, particularly during Stalin’s rule. By and large, Jews were unable to practice religion. Not every synagogue was closed down, but the sense was that if you went to a synagogue, the people inside would be Jews in their 80s and 90s, and KGB agents.

How does antisemitism manifest itself in today’s Ukraine?

In terms of public opinion, you can look to the Anti-Defamation League surveys. These surveys classify antisemitism in a country based on asking people 11 questions, such as: Do you think Jews are responsible for most wars? Do Jews care only for their own? If someone answers yes to a certain number of questions, the ADL classifies them as antisemitic. This classification isn’t perfect, but it gives you a rough idea of the depth of antisemitism—especially when you compare between countries, or between regions. And importantly, this is attitudinal antisemitism; having antisemitic attitudes does not necessarily mean that you’re going to have antisemitic incidents. On these surveys, Ukraine’s scores have been roughly comparable to Poland’s and much of Eastern Europe’s.

When I was with the State Department, I went to Ukraine twice, in 2013 and 2014, once before the Maidan uprising—the mass protests that drove out a pro-Russian president—and once after. After my trips, my view was essentially: There’s antisemitism in Ukraine, just like there is everywhere. Attitudinally, there is probably still a fair amount of antisemitism. But as in most of Eastern Europe, there hasn’t been violence. There were some antisemitic incidents—things like vandalizing outside synagogues with slogans, antisemitic graffiti, or swastikas—but overall, the levels of such incidents were not significant. Day to day, it’s not a problem. And it’s certainly not being implemented by the current government in Kyiv. At one point, Ukraine was the only country in the world, outside Israel, with a Jewish president and prime minister. Still, antisemitism tends to morph, so I couldn’t tell you what the future holds. 

In the last five years or so, the biggest problem with antisemitism has come from nationalist sentiment, which has always existed in Ukraine. Historically, you have people like Stepan Bandera, an anti-communist who worked with the Nazis—and whose people killed Jews along with the Nazis. There is always some debate about the extent of his involvement, but there’s no question that those Ukrainian nationalists were antisemitic. There have been streets named after some of them, including Bandera. There have been some statues put up. For the most part, the Jewish community is very uncomfortable with that. 

What role could Zelensky’s Judaism play in the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

We often worry when Jews come to a place of power in a country. There’s a history of Jews, even before democracies, serving as “court Jews,” sometimes in very powerful positions, in medieval Islam as well as other places. And usually those situations didn’t work out very well for Jews. So we do have a history of thinking about how these situations play out. In 2000, when Joe Lieberman was selected as the vice presidential candidate, there was initially a lot of worry that this would not be good for the Jews. Within a week or two, that kind of talk frittered away; it wasn’t really an issue. 

As the pollster Mark Melman says, “My people don’t do prophecy, so I really can’t tell you the future.” We just don’t know what’s going to happen. Zelensky’s approval ratings were relatively low before the war; they’re now in the 90’s. If he continues as the president, who knows how popular he may or may not be in a year or two. Even if Ukraine survives, which now seems very likely, much of its infrastructure will be destroyed. It’s going to be poor. There’s going to be corruption. There are going to be all kinds of problems. 

The world’s eyes are on Ukraine; does the country’s history of antisemitism affect how it is viewed?

In Russia, there’s no opposition media at this point, so a significant portion of the population buys into this narrative that they’re just going in to clean out the Nazi thugs, who in a coup took over power from legitimately elected representatives of the Ukrainian people. And that once they clean out these thugs, they’ll let them run their own country. I think a lot of Russians buy into that, and I assume that some of Russia’s allies may buy into that, too. 

At the State Department, we used to prioritize the Jewish communities that we thought were in most trouble. There are never enough resources, so this helped us decide: Where do we put our resources? Where do we travel to? Where do we work with regional bureaus to try to help these communities? Ukraine was never on our priority list, and I wouldn’t put it on the list now. It’s hard for me to predict the future. But in terms of antisemitism in a future independent Ukraine, I don’t worry about them as much as I worry about other Jewish communities.

What’s behind Putin’s claims of wanting to “denazify” Ukraine?

I don’t know what’s in Putin’s head. You listen to him, and he has this really distorted view of history—of Russia and Ukraine, and of Ukrainian nationalism. He’s made huge miscalculations based on his preconceived notions.

In the Soviet Union, the big trauma of the 20th century was the invasion by the Nazis, and the number of Soviet citizens killed—particularly civilian populations. The Soviet Union that existed after World War II focused on Nazis and fascism. It often called all its enemies, including the United States, fascists and neo-Nazis. So these are the boogeymen of the 20th century, and probably the 21st century in some ways, in Russia. If you want to work people up, even in our time, you call people Nazis. 


This story is part of a series called Deep Dives, which looks at antisemitic incidences reported in the media and Moment’s Antisemitism Monitor in order to explore their long-term consequences and provide perspective.

Ira N. Forman runs Moment‘s Antisemitism Monitor. Sign up for updates here.


Top photo: The Great Choral Synagogue in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Credit: Maksym Kozlenko via Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

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