The history of the Jews in Ukraine is one that stretches back over a thousand years to the days before the Slavs of Kievan Rus were converted to Orthodox Christianity by Byzantine missionaries in the 10th century.
Prior to the Second World War, the area which now makes up modern Ukraine was home to one of the world’s largest Jewish community, one that saw dozens of important historical figures of Jewish background born within its borders when most of the country was a part of either the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, Poland, and later the Soviet Union. Those names include figures such as future Israeli prime ministers Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol, Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, human rights activist Natan Sharansky, author Sholom Aleichem, as well as dozens of others.
The history of the Jewish experience in Ukraine also includes a dark and often tragic past that has been characterised by Cossack-led pogroms and freedom of movement restrictions under the tsars to outright discrimination and purges by Soviet authorities under Stalin.
Today, however, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claims that the country is no longer a hotbed of antisemitism. Zelensky, who is himself of Jewish origin, emphasised that Ukraine is an absolutely safe country for Jews and the security at Kyiv’s synagogues is adequate enough for Jews to feel safe.
“We are very proud that we have such a low level of antisemitism in independent Ukraine, which began its life in 1991,” Zelensky said in reference to the year that Ukraine became a sovereign state following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He admitted that a small group of far-right radical nationalists does exist in the country, but that the numbers are for the most part insignificant.
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that only 5% of Ukrainians refuse to accept Jews as fellow citizens. That number is far lower than in other Eastern European countries with large historic Jewish populations – 18% of Poles, 22% of Romanians, and 23% of Lithuanians say they do not consider Jews to be equal citizens.
Despite the horrors of the Holocaust and mass immigration to the United States and Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has the fourth-largest Jewish population in the world, numbering nearly half a million, according to some estimates.