It’s been more than three years since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict began, and the Kyiv-based vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, Josef Zissels, said the conflict will not end without intervention from the international community.
“The international community has a lot more potential than it is currently expending, to try to bring this conflict to a close,” said Zissels, through a translator.
In 2014, 40,000 Russian troops invaded the Crimean Peninsula. The conflict between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine continues to this day.
Zissels, who was in Toronto recently at the invitation of Ukrainian-Canadian Encounter, a non-profit cultural group that promotes stronger ties between Ukrainians and Jews, said he met with leaders of the Canadian Jewish and Ukrainian-Canadian communities.
He said Ukraine needs help from the international community to pressure Russia to abide by international law, but the main question is how to “withstand the Russian aggression.”
“The people who have a real influence on Russia speak with Russia very gingerly, very delicately. But Russia’s history has been rough and tough and Russia understands only more direct forms of communication,” Zissels said.
“They respond when they see power or force and when they cannot ignore or avoid it. So Russia is currently an authoritarian country, a kind of hybrid country. It is trying to convince the world that it has its own kind of democracy, but almost nothing is left of the limited democracy that was there in the 1990s,” he said, adding that Russia “doesn’t trust its people, doesn’t feel that the kind of democracy that Ukraine has should be granted to the people.”
Zissels said that Jewish community leaders in Ukraine, which has a Jewish population of about 300,000, are playing an important role when it comes to addressing the country’s economic crisis and the need to “undertake essential and fundamental reform.”
“Because of the war in the east and the conflict, the Jewish community feels it is also important to play an important role in helping to stabilize Ukraine and help it preserve its independence and meet this military and existential challenge,” he said.
Masha Shumatskaya, who was also visiting Toronto from Ukraine late last month on behalf of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), an overseas partner of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, shared her personal story at a UJA Federation lunch and learn program, about how the ongoing conflict and political crisis in Ukraine affected her directly, and also about the work the JDC does to assist those who are displaced in their own country.
Shumatskaya, 26, spoke about the conditions that caused her and her boyfriend to flee the violence in her hometown of Donetsk, Ukraine, to live in Ukraine-controlled Kharkiv.
“We couldn’t believe what was about to happen. In April 2014, there were some armed people who blocked the road in a small town in the Donetsk region, and they were claiming that they were going to create the independent people’s republic,” she said.
Following a conflict that broke out at the Donetsk airport, which was eventually destroyed, she and her boyfriend made the difficult decision to flee Donetsk.
“We didn’t want to because it was unbelievable to think that something like a major conflict would come to Donetsk, because it was the biggest industrial city in Ukraine, with over one-million dwellers. The turning point was when we went to the hospital together and there was a shelling that exploded next to the hospital and everyone was running away from the hospital – the doctors, the patients – and it was terrifying,” she said, adding that her parents remain in Donetsk.
As the hardships continue in Ukraine, Shumatskaya has not turned her back on volunteerism for the Jewish community.
“I was 17 when I decided to participate in a leadership program – it was a one-year long program for young leaders all over Ukraine, where we learned such concepts like responsibility, what community is, why it is important not just to receive, but to give, and we learned about the concept of volunteerism, because it wasn’t that common in Ukraine in general,” she said.
“I started volunteering with Joint, working with orphans, with elderly people, with Jewish teenagers in Donetsk.”
Using what she learned in the JDC’s Metsuda Young Leadership Development program, Shumatskaya launched an initiative that provides food baskets and small gifts to Jewish seniors on Jewish holidays.
Shumatskaya said the generosity of Jewish community groups all over the world does not go unnoticed by the Jews in Ukraine.
“The people of Ukraine feel connected to Jewish people overseas and all over the world, because every single day, they receive help and they know where it comes from,” she said.