Short read

What does the future hold for the Ukrainian Jewish community?

One year into the war in Ukraine, thousands of Jews have already fled the country. History shows some might never return, yet it is very unwise to speculate.

Isabel Sawkins

Today, 24 February marks one year since the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. The war has brought tremendous upheaval to the people of Ukraine and forced many of them to reconsider their future, and that of future generations, on Ukrainian land – and the same can also be said for many Russians who fear they have no future in their own country. This feeling particularly affects the Jewish population in the involved countries, as many of those Jews seeking refuge are eligible to become Israeli nationals due to the Israeli ‘Law of Return’. Israel even launched a special initiative, ‘Home to Israel’ (Olim HaBayta – עולים הביתה), specifically aimed to help Jewish immigrants originating in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, find a new home in Israel.

Other members of the Jewish Ukrainian community might have found temporary refuge in neighbouring countries like Poland and Germany, but those who arrived in Israel already hold the nationality of another country.

According to reports by Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, more than 40,000 people have immigrated to Israel from Ukraine, Russia and Belarussince the outbreak of the war, with an estimated 13,000 of them coming from Ukraine. This is a significant proportion of the Jewish population of Ukraine, regardless of how you count the numbers of Ukrainian Jews: according to JPR’s March 2022 factsheet, How many Jews may be caught up in the conflict in Ukraine, the number of Ukrainians with at least one Jewish grandparent - i.e., those who qualify for Israeli citizenship according to the Israeli ‘Law of Return’ - was 200,000 in 2020, while the number of those who self identify as Jews (‘core’ Jewish population) was estimated at 45,000.

And though other members of the Jewish Ukrainian community might have found temporary refuge in neighbouring countries like Poland and Germany, those who arrived in Israel already hold the nationality of another country.

Jews in Ukraine – a history of trauma and hardship

There is a complicated history of Ukrainian Jewish demography, within which this most recent flux of migration must be positioned. Jewish life in Ukraine can be traced back to the ninth century but has been littered with cases of trauma and hardship. In the twentieth century, devastating events that affected Ukrainian Jews included pogroms carried out by Ukrainian nationalist forces after World War I, as well as the brutal acts of the Holocaust carried out on Ukrainian territory, most famously the murder of more than 33,000 Jews at Babyn Yar on September 29 and 30, 1941.


A Rabbi in Ukrainian military outfit, speaks to Ukrainian Army forces

Yet despite this turbulent history, Ukraine also spawned key elements of Jewish culture - it was the birthplace of the Baal Shem Tov, regarded as the founder of Hasidic Judaism; of Sholem Aleichem, the renowned Yiddish writer, and many other famous Jewish writers and poets; It was also a major centre of the Zionist movement, and the centre of activity for key players such as Lev Pinsker, Moshe Leib Lilienblum, Ahad Ha'Am, Hayim Nachman Bialik and Ze'evJabotinsky.

There is a history of Ukrainian Jewish emigration to Israel, which provides further context to the most recent exodus of Ukrainian Jews. This has been particularly prominent since the early 1970s, when a ban on Jewish refusenik emigration was lifted. It is estimated that approximately 150,000 Jews from the Soviet Union emigrated to Israel at that time, with a further 380,000 fleeing following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A spike was also noted in 2014, when there was a 190% increase in Ukrainian Jews making aliyah, presumably in response to the annexation of Crimea and occupation of eastern Ukraine. These mass emigrations to Israel, alongside emigration to the United States and Germany, are one of the reasons for which it is estimated that the Ukrainian Jewish population has declined by 91% over the last thirty years. 

90% of Ukraine's Jews emigrated since the Cold War ended

Core Jewish population decline in Ukraine and Russia

So, what does the future hold for Ukrainian Jews? It is very difficult, and probably unwise, to speculate. Emigration to Israel is still ongoing. On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the war, Ukrainian Jews continue to find refuge on Israeli soil. However, the situation needs further monitoring as the war progresses. Will more continue to leave? And what will happen when the war finally ends? Will Ukrainian Jews, now settled in Israel, ever feel comfortable returning to their homeland? And what will all of this mean for the survival of the Ukrainian Jewish community?

Images of people

Isabel Sawkins

Former Research Fellow

Isabel Sawkins

Former Research Fellow

Isabel managed JPR’s research panel and survey research programme in the UK. She has an MA in Political Sociology (Russia and Eastern Europe) from University...

Read more

You might also like: