The word “Ukraine” is probably derived from the old Slavic meaning “borderland”, and while its size cannot be compared to the diminutive territory of Israel, there are many resonances between the two countries. The deep spiritual attachment to their own land – from the flag depicting sunflowers and sky, to the testimony of Ukrainian people fighting to live peacefully in historically disputed territory, the echoes keep on coming.
Ukraine finds herself sandwiched between the global powers of “The West” and “The East”, an uncomfortable place to be. Israel has also historically found itself uncomfortably close to the political designs of powerful neighbours. From the empires of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Persians (again), Arabs and Islamic power, Crusaders and Christian supremacy, Mamelukes, Ottomans…
Just as in any nation-state situated in spaces other countries claim as part of their borders, the diversity of the population, language, ethnicity, and narratives means that internal as well as external boundaries can be fraught, yet at the same time a strong identity and loving attachment to the place is created, and no amount of displacement or oppression can disrupt these deep roots of belonging.
I am struck by how powerful is the testimony of those who call Ukraine home, who initially fled the war yet often returned to the homeland they love and yearn for. I am reminded of the psalmist sitting by the rivers of Babylon, who recorded the people’s weeping and longing, the remembering of Zion and Jerusalem from their captivity and exile. The strength of relationship that the people of Ukraine have with their land impels them to fight for it even when it seems that the odds are too heavily against them, this too echoes in the Jewish soul.
Judaism has thrived in Ukraine for over a thousand years. Byzantine Jews of Constantinople had familial, cultural, and theological ties with the Jews of Kyiv a millennium ago and one of the city gates was named the Jewish gate. Chasidism was born there, as were many of the founders of cultural Zionism – from Jabotinsky to Achad Ha’Am, Bialik and Shai Agnon. While also the home of pogroms and of Cossacks, a place of historic persecution of Jews, of our expulsion and emigration – so many of us can trace our family roots back to this place – it is notable that Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish and a proud supporter of both Ukraine and Israel.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild is Spiritual Care Lead at Heart of Kent Hospice, and Rabbi of Lev Chadash, Milano, Italy.