Karaite heritage a political football between Ukraine and Russia

Tensions between Russia and the Ukraine were being stoked well before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 over two tiny exotic Jewish minorities – the Ukraine Karaites and the Krymchaks. The Jewish News of North California reported back in 2021:

Crimean Karaites attend services in Simferopol, Crimea, on 9 June 2018. (Photo/JTA-Sergei Malgavko-TASS via Getty Images)

Two tiny sects with Jewish roots have been dragged into yet another diplomatic fight between Russia and Ukraine.

The few hundred Karaite Jews who remain in Ukraine today are members of a sect that broke off from mainstream Judaism in eighth-century Iraq. They were documented in Crimea in the 13th century and nearly wiped out during the Holocaust. (Karaite communities elsewhere today include a sizable population in Israel and smaller ones in several other countries. The only Karaite synagogue in America is in Daly City.)

The nearly extinct Krymchaks, meanwhile, are related to Ukrainian Karaites but are believed to be more heavily descended from Georgian Jews.

Last year Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky unveiled a bill that he said was designed to help preserve the heritage of the tiny minority groups, plus the Tatars, a Muslim people.

But by designating those groups “indigenous peoples,” Zelensky, who is himself Jewish, angered Russia, which zealously guards the interests of Ukraine’s ethnic Russian minority.

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