The Jews of Crimea

The Jews of Crimea

Done peacefully, we wouldn’t care if Crimea were part of Russia or Ukraine.

But it’s being done at gunpoint, with a puppet prime minister, installed by Russia, ostensibly running the show on that Black Sea peninsula.

The climax of that show happened Sunday when Crimeans, in a trumped-up referendum, voted for unification with Russia. There were just two options on the ballot, neither of which involved staying with Ukraine as before.  

The outcome could spell trouble for Crimeans, especially the estimated 17,000 Jews who still live in that region, many of whom are elderly and have seen more than their share of violence and oppression.

We recently spoke with Pittsburgh attorney Edgar Snyder, a member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) executive board for the Former Soviet Union. As such, Snyder gets regular updates on the situation on the ground over there.   

According to Snyder, Crimea’s Jews are, for the most part, staying out of this feud.

“My understanding is, this is a matter of survival,” Snyder told us. “These people, a lot of them are older; a lot of them are dependent on JDC as their only link to the outside world. For a lot of these people, I don’t think they really care [about the standoff]. I think they feel betrayed — by Russia and everybody else. They’re caught the middle.

“I don’t think the problem is going to be whether Russia or Ukraine,” he added. “For them [Crimea’s Jews], it’s going to be, is there going to be any interference in getting the care they need. That’s the major issue for them.”

That’s understandable.

Like it or not, though, the politics of this crisis may come to Crimea’s Jews, who get much-needed assistance from JDC-run “chesed” centers on the peninsula. In the days leading up to Sunday’s referendum JDC staff members reported having trouble getting through checkpoints to take care of their needy clients, according to Snyder.

Whether that will change now that the referendum has been held is anyone’s guess. Crimea’s Tatar minority largely boycotted the vote, as did other pro-Ukrainian Crimeans, and it’s not clear if they will quietly accept the outcome.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a dark echo of Adolf Hitler, continues to state that he will protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Could that mean new incursions? What would it mean for Jews in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics?

The Obama administration isn’t waiting to find out. The president has sent Vice President Joe Biden to Poland and the Baltic states to shore up its diplomatic positions there; Secretary of State John Kerry has already visited Ukraine while the president has promised $1 billion in aid to that country. Some sanctions are already in place. Most ominous of all, Reuters reported that a U.S. guided missile destroyer is on an extended exercise operation in the Black Sea.

We don’t know how all this will work out, but to be honest, we have little love for either Ukraine or Russia — two countries with shameful histories of anti-Semitism.

We do care about the Jews who live in these lands — those who are too old to emigrate, those who are rediscovering their faiths and those who stay behind to assist the remnant of this once vital community. We support efforts by JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel to help these people, up to and including making aliyah if they choose. (JAFI is already reporting an uptick in aliyah interest among Ukrainian Jews.)

If the Putin regime, in its megalomania, poses a threat to Jews who remain, then we support a strong response from our government. No one wants a war, and we don’t believe one is imminent, but if our people are in trouble, we can hardly stand idly by.