When I got off the plane that took me from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Kiev to attend a Jewish educational conference I was speaking at and reporting on for The Jerusalem Post in the small city of Uzhgorod, Ukraine, a fellow journalist from Israel said something that unsettled me.
“Wanna see something interesting?” he whispered in my ear, as we approached the baggage claim. “You see my hat? You see that guy’s hat?” he said, pointing to his black woolen winter cap and the blue baseball cap of another Israeli from our flight.
“We’re wearing them to hide our yarmulkas. A pro-Nazi political party just won over 10 percent of the popular vote here, and anti-Semitism is on the rise.”
He was referring to Ukraine’s radical right-wing Svoboda (Freedom) party, which openly advocates Nazism and insouciantly espouses anti-Semitic diatribes in a way that would have made Hitler incandescent with pride. The party secured 41 seats in the Ukrainian parliament in the October 28 election, and is expected to legitimize public displays of anti-Semitism in the country.
According to Irena Cantorovich, a scholar at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Kantor Database for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, the Svoboda party has set a disturbing precedent for Jew hatred in a country already historically riddled with it.
“This is the first time in the history of modern Ukraine that a nationalistic party entered the parliament, and it will probably have more than one representative in it,” she cautioned.
“Svoboda is known for its racist and anti-Semitic views.”
Cantorovich added that the party’s platform includes support for the revitalization of Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with Nazi Germany, and that its members desecrate Jewish landmarks.
“[They take] part in anti-Semitic incidents such as damaging synagogues, Jewish centers and cemeteries. The party is also active against the coming of Jewish religious pilgrims to Uman,” she said.
“In the previous election, Svoboda received only 1% of the votes, so we can see that their influence is growing.”
I HAD never been to Kiev before, so as far as first impressions go, this wasn’t exactly an auspicious start.
Indeed, apart from some surprisingly good borscht while waiting for my connecting flight to Lviv, Kiev had all the warmth of brass knuckles on a winter day.
A brief trip to a local museum just outside the city to kill time before the next leg of my journey to the other side of country didn’t help matters.
Greeted by a gargantuan, metallic statue of “Mother Russia,” wielding the biggest sword and shield I have ever seen in my life (making the Statue of Liberty look about as empowered as one of the secretaries on Mad Men), and countless oversized stone-carved statutes illustrating the strength and bravery of Russian soldiers during World War II, I couldn’t help but think Ukraine was selling itself as the toughest, most jingoistic country on the planet.
This clear celebration of war and might – despite the fact that it was the nation’s undoing – was utterly unnerving, and made me feel like I was in a parallel universe from an Alfred Hitchcock film.
However, as bad as it was, it was not nearly as upsetting as the adjacent World War II museum I toured minutes later.
As I walked past a labyrinth of immaculately maintained and detailed displays illustrating the depravity and destruction of the war against Russians, I realized upon completing the tour that there was one glaring omission: A single mention of Jewish victimization.
This egregious exclusion – even at memorials for death camps known to have exterminated Jews by the millions – only reinforced my sense that this country had, and has, little if any respect for its Jewish past or present, and actually has gone out of its way to have it expunged from its museums and history books.
And despite Ukraine’s undeniable bucolic beauty, I in turn began to view it as the ugliest place I had ever set foot in.
Thankfully, this all changed the next day.
UPON ARRIVING in Uzhgorod, and meeting hundreds of Jews who had traveled far and wide at their own expense to attend a Jewish conference celebrating their shared past and hopeful renewal, I began to see a silver lining in what appeared to be a menacing opaque cloud.
The conference, hosted by an organization called Limmud FSU, and created for young Russian-speaking Jews in the former Soviet Union to reconnect to their Jewish roots, drew over 600 of the most enthusiastic and proud young Jewish men and women I had ever met. (See “A Jewish Renaissance in Ukraine.")
Furthermore, not only did each participant make a sacrifice to attend the distant event, they also demonstrated a sense of longing and thirst for knowledge about their past that humbled me beyond words.
As a New York Jew, who had largely taken his identity for granted due to being surrounded by millions just like me, these young men and women reminded me that being Jewish is not a right; it’s a privilege.
Their desire to take part in what was ostensibly an intellectual marathon – featuring four days of nonstop lectures and events coalescing around Jewish identity and pride – was a testament to the fact that Hitler, and those like him, will never be able to remove them, or people like them, from any history book.
I had never felt so proud to be Jewish in my life, and will never view the beauty and incomparable endurance of Judaism the same way again.
FOLLOWING THE conference, I reexamined the initial fear and loathing I felt by Ukraine’s institutionalized anti-Semitic cultural norm.
And while those feelings were not remotely placated, they became coupled by a far more powerful force: Hope.
As I drove to the airport in Lviv to leave the country that initially filled me with antipathy, I was reminded by one of my Israeli travel companions that this conference proved that it is for good reason that Jews are known as “Am hasefer” (the people of the book).
Perhaps for the first time in my life, I saw with my own eyes just how profoundly unquenchable, and unstoppable, this thirst for knowledge, togetherness and belonging – for survival itself – truly is.
And as I flew back to Tel Aviv, three of the most beautiful and important words I could think of floated through my mind like a life-affirming mantra, until I finally fell into a peaceful sleep: “Am Yisrael hai.”