For centuries, the Jewish communities inhabiting the regions making up modern Ukraine have been largely known as a persecuted people; disenfranchised without ever being given the chance to properly acclimate.
While historically there is great truth to this image of the Ukrainian Jewish community, with pogroms and Nazi massacres being a constant nightmare in our collective memory, in more recent decades, and particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have achieved a great deal.
In fact the Ukrainian Jewish community has established itself as a thriving component of the Jewish Diaspora and even been positioned to influence policy for the betterment of our Ukrainian nation.
I have been blessed to be a pivotal actor in this process and take considerable pride in our accomplishments as a Jewish community.
Yet, I must admit that the past few weeks have presented an enormous challenge to Ukrainian Jews and forced us to address questions not just of practical import but which go to the very essence of our communal identity – and as importantly its relationship with the outside world.
Most fundamentally the events at Maidan, where the Kiev city square turned into a place of national revolution, have forever changed the history of the Ukrainian nation. The lives that were lost in those horrific days cannot have been in vain but rather must serve as a rallying cry that we will ensure a better future for our nation.
For we in the Jewish community, ever cognizant of that history of persecution and alienation, we too see Maidan as a source of hope.
While these issues have clearly been developing over time, the most recent Russian intervention, that made Maidan necessary and brought about the Crimean crisis, has essentially robbed us of our national right to self-determination. The national fight against that intervention, in which the Jewish community deserves to take a strong and unwavering stand, has had – and will have – massive implications for the direction of our community.
For we Jews in the Ukraine, the issue is no different from the issue that the greater nation is facing.
Can we allow Russia to define our future and concurrently will we allow the world’s perception of these events to guide our fate? And most fundamentally, how will these quickly transpiring events affect our long-term future? How can we the Jews of Ukraine who have so suffered, but also so succeeded, ensure our continued vitality and growth 10, 20 and even 50 years into the future? On the internal communal level, Ukrainian Jewry is an independent body that sees itself aligned with the future of Ukraine. Most parties favor increasing alliances with the Western world and furthering the trend that breaks the historic chains that bound us to Russia.
Admittedly, like any Jewish cause over the centuries, there are divergent opinions within our community. I know there are those who still favor embracing Russia as the big brother we have always known and fear the change that will come with a new Ukraine. But those forces are the minority and I would humbly suggest that they don’t speak for the vast majority of Ukrainian Jews.
The pertinent issue which these events have brought to the forefront is how – or even if – our community will be embraced by the Diaspora Jewish leadership and most importantly the government of Israel.
At every opportunity afforded to me in recent days and weeks I have not been shy in my criticism of the Israeli leadership for its failure to come out in full support of the interests of the Ukrainian Jewish community. I fully appreciate the geopolitical sensitivities that prevent Jerusalem from offending Moscow, but at the end of the day the needs and interests of Diaspora Jewry must be sacrosanct in the eyes of the government of Israel.
While I laud the tenacity of some Jewish leaders who came to our aid, both morally and financially during this difficult time, the relative silence of others speaks volumes and demands that we ask the all-important question of where are we headed as a community and a key player in the Jewish Diaspora.
I therefore would implore all open-minded and tolerant players in the Jewish global community to take this occasion to realize that we stand at a truly historic time. While Russia will undoubtedly use the brute force at its disposal to rob Ukraine of its sovereign rights in the Crimea and perhaps beyond, we as a nation and as a Jewish community will not stand idly by while these injustices are imposed upon us.
We will fight in the international courts of public opinion and in all other relevant forums and I respectfully request that the Diaspora Jewish community work alongside us in this fight.
As Ukrainian Jews we have achieved far too much to allow the international community to ignore our accomplishments and fail to recognize the potential damage that these events can lead to for our nation and indeed the world.
We are certainly at a crossroads. But indeed many feel deeply confused and uncertain of what the future holds for our nation at large and the Jewish community in particular. If the world falls victim to the Russian charade of saber rattling and chest-thumping then we risk making a historic mistake which can likely never be reversed, and no doubt Jews will again be unfortunate victims of these cascading events.
But if the international community, and particularly the Jewish leadership across the world, vocally and valiantly supports our interests at this time, it will represent a new position of strength and solidarity and do nothing less than define a new era of kinship and influence for Diaspora Jewry in the 21st century.
I therefore use this opportunity to call upon the Jewish community and our friends throughout the world to come together in solidarity for our needs at this time and call upon all responsible leaders to join me in this effort.
The author is president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and a Member of the Parliament of Ukraine. To contact Mr. Feldman regarding initiatives in support of Ukrainian Jewry contact ed_d@ mail.ru.