The deteriorating situation in Ukraine, particularly for the Jewish community, may mean Canadian Jewish organizations will be looking at additional mobilization to help where needed.
“During this tense time, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa is incredibly proud of our partners, all of whom receive funding through the Annual Campaign,” said Federation president and CEO Andrea Freedman.
“The Jewish Agency for Israel is working around the clock to expedite aliyah to Israel,” she said.
“Despite harrowing circumstances on the ground, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is managing to maintain critical services to the most vulnerable members of the Jewish community.”
The Centre for Israel Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Freedman added, “has been incredibly responsive and helpful in facilitating discussions with the Canadian government to ensure a heightened state of readiness to help move people out of harm’s way if necessary.”
Freedman also praised Jewish Family Services of Ottawa (JFS) for being the driving force in Canada to ensure the Jewish community is prepared to “meet our responsibility to assist our brothers and sisters in the former Soviet Union.”
She said JFS executive director Mark Zarecki deserves to be acknowledged for recognizing early on that action may be required on the part of our government and Canadian Jewish communities.
“We have a lot of Russian and Ukrainian Jews who live here,” said Zarecki. “Weeks ago, we clearly understood that there was physical violence, and Jews were getting beaten up. We had the emailed medical reports of people from Ukraine. Many were hospitalized after being beaten so badly.”
Zarecki said the Canadian government has been very sympathetic and supportive to the anti-Semitism crisis in Ukraine and appointed a liaison with Jewish Family Services and JIAS Toronto.
“There are many layers to unravel” when considering the current situation in Ukraine, Crimea and Russia, and, as is often the case, “the Jewish community is especially vulnerable,” said CIJA CEO Shimon Koffler Fogel.
“As a minority, it relies on the government for ensuring peace, security and institutional protections. With the breakdown of civil order, the potential for spontaneous riots, violence and the like increases significantly. Add to that the unchecked inflation – which has created shortages in everything from food to medicine – and the overall situation has become exceedingly tense and volatile,” Fogel said.
He said the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee have stepped up their presence in Ukraine, increasing material aid to the Jewish communities, providing enhanced physical security, and serving a deterrent function as well.
“Interest in aliyah has increased, although community leaders have consistently and repeatedly rejected the notion that the Jewish community is in any special danger or at greater risk than the overall population.”
Nevertheless, “the situation in Ukraine has generated very high levels of general distress, anxiety and uncertainty. The instability of such situations invariably is amplified within the Jewish community … for good reason. And, while the situation right now is not acute, Israeli agencies and Jewish organizations are watching the situation closely and have contingency plans should things spiral out of control.”
“On the broadest geo-strategic level,” said Fogel, “this reflects the latest in a succession of attempts by Vladimir Putin to reassert Russian dominance in the region and reclaim pre-eminent status as one of the two superpowers in the world.”
Historically, Fogel explained, Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine have not only been the home of Russian speakers and ethnic Russians but, at various times, have been part of Russia.
“That said, Ukraine as a whole, has been agitating for closer ties with Europe and unrestrained independence from Russian dominance and influence. So, the drive for sovereignty is as much about freeing Ukraine from oppressive and even exploitative Russian dominance as it is the economic pull of drawing closer to and benefiting from the financial support from Europe and the west.”
He said that to justify its aggression, Russia has lobbed a number of accusations, including charges that its actions are “just a reflection of its responsiveness to the desires expressed by the majority of Crimean calls for Russian protection and concerns about Ukrainian anti-Semitism.”
Freedman noted there are conflicting reports about anti-Semitism.
“The Ukrainian leadership has been very clear in denouncing violence and hateful rhetoric targeted specifically to the Jewish community,” she said, “and this provides a measure of comfort. However, on multiple occasions, the vulnerability of the Jewish community has been starkly evident. Furthermore, history has shown that uncertainty and unrest often translates into increased violence against minority groups, in particular the Jewish community.”
It should be noted that Putin has a fairly strong record of support for and defence of the Jewish community in Russia, said Fogel.
“He has played on historic perceptions of intense anti-Semitism in Ukraine, dating back to the Second World War and Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis. … Many Jews are involved in the Maidan revolution, and Ukrainians have gone to great lengths to eliminate or suppress any anti-Semitic tendencies from elements of the far right. In truth, there are individual Jews on both sides of this conflict, but the Jewish community, per se, is irrelevant to this drama.”
However, despite efforts to suppress anti-Semitism, it does still exist.
In Ottawa, CIJA has arranged consultations between Jewish organizations like JFS and the government “to ensure that we can be as responsive as necessary, if the crisis places the Jewish community at greater risk,” said Fogel. “This would include additional supports for the community in situ, movement to Israel and reunification with family here in Canada, where that is an option.”
“The situation in Ukraine is extremely complex and volatile,” said Freedman. “In our role as a convener, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa is uniquely positioned to provide funding for our partners and to bring organizations together as needed. While we hope and pray the tension subsides and there is no further escalation, we have a responsibility to be prepared for any eventuality.”
Escalation may necessitate the need to raise additional funds or for a community-wide effort to welcome new members to our Jewish community, she said.
“The future is not yet clear. However, working with our overseas partners and leaders like Shimon and Mark, we will be ready to meet the challenge.”