Ukrainian official: Jews ‘among the best protectors of our country’

Ukrainian embassy blames synagogue firebomb attack on "stupid people or provocateurs."

October 2, 2014 19:23
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko pays visit to Babi Yar, Kiev. (photo credit: UKRAINE EMBASSY TEL AVIV)

Ukrainian Jews have enriched their country and the actions of “stupid people or provocateurs” do not mean that all Ukrainians are anti-Semitic, a Ukrainian official said in response to reports to a failed firebombing of a Kiev synagogue immediately prior to Rosh Hashana.

Anti-Semitism is “far worse” in many other European countries than it is in Ukraine, Embassy Second Secretary Olena Ivanchuk told The Jerusalem Post, asserting that there is little discrimination against Jews in her country.

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“I should say you that for last several months Jewish people in Ukraine were among the best protectors of our country, most efficient leaders, most helpful volunteers,” she added.

The Jewish community in Ukraine has faced difficulties over the past several months as continued fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east has displaced thousands of Jews, forcing entire communities into internal exile. The war’s attendant economic difficulties have harmed the ability of local Jews to maintain their institutions, and the burden of caring for refugees in areas outside of the conflict zone has strained communal coffers.

While some Jewish figures in Kiev and leaders of Jewish communities under separatist control have espoused a policy of political non-interference out of fear of being caught between the warring sides, others have taken a hard nationalist line.

The Jewish community of Dnipropetrovsk has raised money for the war effort in a Jewish primary school and Igor Kolomoisky, regional governor and a major figure in the city’s Jewish community, has personally financed the equipping of the volunteer Dnipro Battalion.

Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich went so far as to term the conflict a war of good and evil in a sermon over the High Holy Days, he told the Post this week.

Figures on both sides of the conflict, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have use accusations of anti-Semitism as propaganda tools to vilify their opponents and rabbis in both countries have verbally sparred over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

During the period and immediately following the street revolution that deposed pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich in February, a series of anti-Semitic events, including the stabbing of a yeshiva student in the capital, rocked Ukrainian Jewry. The prominent role played by the far-right Svoboda Party both during the protests and as part of a subsequent interim government was, according to Moscow, evidence that Ukraine was ruled by a junta of fascists and anti-Semites. Svoboda’s influence has waned, however, and the party no longer has any ministerial seats.

Svoboda has 35 out of 449 seats in parliament, making it the third-largest party in Ukraine.

Earlier this week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko paid a state visit to the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, where more than 30,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, a move that Ivanchuk said typifies contemporary Ukraine.

Only days before Poroshenko’s visit, a swastika was found scrawled at the site.

The presence of top Ukrainian officials sent a “strong message against anti-Semitism” in the wake of last Wednesday’s unsuccessful firebombing of Kiev’s Great Choral Synagogue, Anti-Defamation League national chairman Abe Foxman told the Post.

“While the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine has generally been low, any firebomb attack on a synagogue anywhere must be taken seriously,” he said. “Thankfully no one was hurt and there was no significant damage. We appreciate Kiev Mayor [Vitali] Klitschko’s denunciation of this specific attack and his call for additional security at Jewish institutions.”

Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Moscow based head of the Conference of European Rabbis called on the authorities in Kiev to beef up security in the wake of the attack.

Asked about the firebomb and the graffiti, Bleich, who has blamed several anti-Semitic incidents in the past year on Russian provocateurs, said that “it doesn’t feel very frightening.”

Ukrainian Jews have expressed less of a fear of anti-Semitism than of Russian action, with Yaakov Virin, a hassid who escaped from the rebel stronghold of Donetsk to Dnipropetrosvk, recalling a bus full of commuters coming to his defense when confronted by a young man hurling racial invective several weeks ago.

This approach was echoed by Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, who said that while the attack was alarming, “anti-Semitism is not a danger.”

“[The] Jewish community here are more endangered by war, economical crisis and uncertainty over heating and electricity in the coming winter,” he explained.

According to Zelig Brez, the director of the Dnipropetrovsk Jewish community, a new political Ukrainian nation has been born in the fires of the conflict, one in which the historic mistrust between the various ethnic groups in the country has begun to be buried.

Jews, for the first time in their history, he continued, are “feeling proud to be the citizens of Ukraine,” and are no longer “a very isolated group that was not caring and not so involved in the general community.”

Breslov Hassidim raise money for Ukrainian troops

Breslov Hassidim on pilgrimage in the Ukrainian city of Uman on Rosh Hashana raised money for wounded Ukrainian soldiers, according to reports in both the Ukrainian and the ultra-Orthodox Israeli media.

The pilgrims, who were visiting the grave of the founder of their sect, set up boxes for donations around the city. Ukrainian television showed blackand- white-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews expressing their love for the East European country.

There was little mention of the humanitarian crisis among the Jews of east Ukraine during the pilgrimage, however, one participant told The Jerusalem Post earlier this week, prompting Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, the rabbi of Donetsk, to comment that “it is very unfortunate that people are not aware of, and may not seek to know, the difficult situation of so many Jews in eastern Ukraine.”

Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich expressed his approval of the fund-raising, telling the Post that “for many years we have been trying to find and stress the positive PR angle that tens of thousands of tourists help the economy and add jobs.”

This has been difficult due to “untoward behavior by a small minority of the pilgrims, [but] the act of raising money to assist the injured soldiers may very well turn the tide and give them the opening of positive PR,” he said.

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