Despite new Jewish president, Ukranian Jewish community faces challenges

Not only is president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky Jewish, but the fact that he is Jewish barely received any coverage in the election at all.

Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine April 21, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election at his campaign headquarters in Kiev, Ukraine April 21, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Jews of Ukraine can be said to be living in interesting times.
A Jewish president was just elected, the current prime minister is Jewish and the outgoing president was strongly pro-Israel and enjoyed close relations with the Jewish community.
Not only is Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky Jewish, but the fact that he is Jewish barely received any coverage in the election at all.
At the same time, Jews in general feel safe in Ukraine – there are almost no reported antisemitic assaults, although there have been several prominent incidents of antisemitic vandalism, and religious Jews say they feel safe walking around and being identifiably Jewish.
Ilya Bezruchko, a Jewish activist and journalist, believes that there is “a big future for the Ukrainian Jewish community,” and says that Jews in the country can model themselves on the US model of strong national loyalty coupled with the preservation of Jewish religious and cultural identity.
But he argues that it is important for the Jewish community to show its commitment to Ukraine, and that many Jews and Jewish organizations have already done so, having helped Jews and non-Jews alike when they fled eastern Ukraine during the worst of the fighting with Russian-backed forces in 2014 and 2015.
“We are not in the ghetto or shtetl anymore, we are an integral part of Ukrainian society. We should be an example,” said Bezruchko.
And he pointed to the election of Zelensky as proof that Jews can feel safe and prosper in the country.
“Zelensky is the best example that antisemitism is not an issue for Ukrainians.”
Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, explained why Zelensky’s Jewish background did not become an issue during the recent election.
He pointed out that precisely because outgoing-President Petro Poroshenko – who was the losing candidate in the final run-off election with Zelensky – enjoyed such good relations with the Jewish community, there was no way Zelensky’s Jewishness would become an issue.
Bleich described Poroshenko as “philosemitic,” and said he would therefore never have raised Zelensky’s Jewishness as a weapon against him.
Zelesnky himself was not interested in bringing up his Jewish heritage, and even quipped that his being Jewish “barely makes 20 in my long list of faults.”
Indeed, the fact that a Jewish man could be elected in Ukraine – where the Jews of the Russian empire were oppressed for so many years, suffered genocide at the hands of the Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators and had their religion suppressed by the Soviet regime – has made many sit up and take note.
And some have presented it as evidence that antisemitism is not a prevalent or prominent issue in the country.
AT THE Kiev Jewish Forum event this week organized by the Jewish Confederations of Ukraine, US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism Elan Carr said that it was “nothing short of stunning” that Zelensky’s Jewishness was not raised, given Europe’s history.
Edouard Dolinsky, head of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, is less impressed by these claims.
He said that Zelensky’s Jewish heritage was not well known in Ukraine, and his appeal and name-recognition had been from his TV persona in the successful series he acted in, Servant of the People, and the fact that he was not part of the political and business elite.
“Most of the votes Zelensky got were against Poroshenko,” argued Dolinsky, arguing that the attraction of the president-elect was mostly his anti-establishment status.
“Ukrainians weren’t voting for a Jew, they were voting for change, against corruption, something new and someone not from political elites.”
And one issue which has been prominent in recent years is the glorification and honor bestowed on World War II-era Ukrainian nationalists, some of whom were also Nazi collaborators and were responsible for war crimes and mass murder against Ukrainian Jews.
Bleich acknowledges the problem and says that it is “very uncomfortable” to walk down Bandera Prospect, a central Kiev road named after Stepan Bandera in 2016, and Shukhevych Avenue, also in Kiev, named in 2017 after Roman Shukhevych, who collaborated with the Nazis and committed atrocities against Jews.
But Bleich says that the problem needs to be seen in the broader context of Ukraine’s struggle for national identity following the end of Soviet rule and the 2014 revolution.
“For Ukraine, these people are heroes – not for having killed Jews, but for having fought for Ukrainian independence,” the rabbi argues in reference to the Ukrainian nationalist movements who first fought against the Soviets and then against the Nazis in World War II.
“For Jews, however, they are red flags.”
Bleich said that a non-politicized narrative of Ukrainian history has yet to be established, and that overcoming concerns of the Jewish community with the glorification of some of the nationalist heroes first requires the better establishment of an objective understanding of history.
“Ukrainians need to have an objective history of their own, and then we sit down and work it out with neighbors and friends and see where we agree and where we do not.”
This is a sentiment that Bezruchko concurs with and very much echoes.
“Ukrainians and Jews need to sit together, discuss what the truth about the Ukrainian national figures is and if someone is wrong, we should have the courage to say we were wrong,” he said.
Dolinsky says he has little sympathy for these views, arguing that there are plenty of other heroes Ukraine could pick to glorify, including several Jewish Nobel laureates.
BUT BEYOND the concern with the recent lionization of historical Ukrainian nationalists, is a growing problem with modern-day ultranationalists.
Although ultranationalist parties currently have only slim representation in the Ukrainian parliament, far-right and ultranationalist movements have been growing in prominence and influence in recent years.
Examples include the presence of the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion within the Ukrainian National Guard, which has been accused of war crimes during the conflict in the Ukrainian east and sanctioned by the US Congress for its ultranationalist and white supremacist ties.
Other groups such as National Militia – tied to the Azov Battalion, C14 and others – have conducted violent attacks against Roma communities and LGBT groups in the country, and have disturbed political events of liberal and left-wing groups, in some cases violently attacking demonstrators.
“Their antisemitic agenda is one of their top priorities,” says Dolinsky of these far-right groups.
“They regularly engage in antisemitic rhetoric, demonstrations for Nazi collaborators, torch-lit marches and other activities.”
Dolinsky described them as “a very serious threat,” and noted they have good connections within the national government and significant political representation in local governments in Ukraine’s regions.
Boris Lozhkin, president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, also sees the far-right and neo-Nazi groups as a possible menace down the road.
“We do see the rise of pro-fascist movements, I can’t say it’s a big percentage of voters, 1-2%, but we see these movements and they are a potential threat,” he said.
“They are not attacking Jewish people for now, but they are a potential threat for the future – because if you have fascist movements, then it’s just a question of time when they start to be antisemitic.”
What lies ahead for Ukraine is unclear. The conflict in the east with the Russian-backed separatist regions still simmers, corruption is endemic and the new president – popular as he may be for now – has no political experience, which will pose problems in many fields, not least in facing the Machiavellian Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Jewish community has created a vibrant and positive environment for Ukraine’s Jews, but it will also have to cope with the coming challenges, of which there are several, in an equally astute manner.