One Ukraine brings to mind rampant antisemitism, Nazis, the Holocaust, nationalist marches with swastikas and SS symbols, more than 130 antisemitic acts in 2017 and Jewish communities wiped out.
Another Ukraine evokes a Jewish prime minister, Sholom Aleichem, a reinvigorated post-Soviet Jewish community, Hillels in almost every major city, a new Jewish Community Center in Kiev and young Jews openly wearing Star of David necklaces.
People from Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s fourth largest city, speak proudly of how huge their Jewish community is. And Odessa, the fourth most populous, is still considered a Jewish city – though Jews make up less than 3% of the population.
“Only” 24 antisemitic incidents were reported in 2017 in this Jewish community on the verge of extinction.
The well-known joke talks about “two Jews, three opinions, and five political parties.”
In Ukraine, however, there are two Jews, three Ukraines, and five different kinds of antisemitism – all against the backdrop of a post-revolution government and ongoing civil and media wars with Russia.
For the Jewish people, Ukraine is historically the land of pogroms, antisemitism, Nazi collaborators and Holocaust revisionism; judging from regular reports in Jewish media, not much has changed.
This may be the natural limitation of Jewish journalism. There is almost no way to separate history, reputation and bitterness from reporting on Eastern Europe.
I am no exception – a young Jew whose family immigrated from Ukraine (and Belarus) and who was inundated with stories of the Soviet Union. In late March, I traveled to Ukraine to see for myself – and to ask a wide variety of Ukrainian Jews about a country steeped in Jewish blood, pride and death.
The world changed
“Let’s go to Israel to pick oranges,” a friend said to Elena Zaslavskaya when perestroika – a period of economic and political reforms – began in the mid-1980s. It was still the era of refuseniks. At best, Jews would be interrogated by the KGB for trying to leave for Israel.
At worst, they were thrown in jail under a public campaign that accused Zionism of racism and Israel of existentially threatening the Communist Party enterprise.
What sounds today like a banal phrase was – in the unsure air of a changing USSR – charged. It was still the era of refusniks, when Jews were interrogated by the KGB for trying to leave for Israel, at times even thrown in jail, under a public campaign that accused Zionism of racism and Israel of being an existential threat to the Communist Party enterprise.
By then, hundreds of thousands of Jews had already left the USSR for America and Israel; many were let out as a show of tolerance before the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Zaslavskaya said that for those who remained, perestroika eased government antisemitism.
“There appeared certain opportunities and something started to change,” Zaslavskaya said. Once the Soviet regime fell in 1991, “There was that kind of feeling that the Jews burst with freedom, like a geyser.”
Ukraine exploded with an immeasurable number of Jewish organizations after 1991, each with their own constituencies, goals and politics in the Wild West of the post-Soviet era. Eventually, many Jews joined groups under the umbrella of VAAD, the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, where Zaslavskaya now works as the project manager while also serving as the executive director of the Zionist Federation of Ukraine.
And how is the antisemitism?
“Of course, where there are Jews, there’s antisemitism,” she responded, the same way there are anti-Kazakh and anti-Armenian sentiments in Ukraine. But without antisemitism enforced by the government, things are much different, she explains. Directly after the Soviet Union fell, for example, Jewish quotas at universities were not enforced and Zaslavskaya didn’t lose work because of her heritage.
I couldn’t help but point out how, for many Jews from the Soviet Union, Ukraine is still the land of evergreen antisemitism. My family had ingrained such a feeling in me as a non-negotiable fact, which left me able to listen to Zaslavskaya, but unable to believe her when she spoke about life becoming better for the Jews of Ukraine.
This attitude came as no surprise to her. Many of her friends left the Soviet Union. They were harassed, followed and interrogated by the KGB. Many, like my parents’ families, had been stripped of their citizenship and allowed to leave with almost no belongings. Even wedding rings were usually taken by the Soviets.
“These people, no longer young, don’t want to hear anything about Ukraine. This mindset they now have forever,” Zaslavskaya said of the Jews who left. “For them Ukraine is something scary, horrible, antisemitic, wicked.”
How could it have changed? Was that even possible?
Youth lives in a completely different world
“Personally, I don’t really feel it [antisemitism]. But if we take my parent’s generation, and especially of my grandmother and grandfather, then of course the way it is now is a great shock. [The change is] in large part thanks to the Jewish community, which develops year after year and brings in new participants. I think they took a step in the fight so that antisemitism was erased in Ukraine.”
Anna Genialnaya is the youth group director at the Halom Jewish Community Center in Kiev. She openly wears a Star of David necklace that – in a very specific way – bothers me.
Many Jews from the Soviet Union taught their children to avoid openly showing signs of Jewishness as a survival mechanism against antisemitism. I asked Genialnaya about the necklace, internally questioning her sanity for wearing it in Ukraine.
Genialnaya began wearing the necklace six years ago. Her parents were also nervous about her decision, but she says the last six years have passed without incident.
“Well, I mean, people would ask ‘What is that, a Jewess?’ And I would say ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay.’ Everything ended on that.”
Of antisemitism, she said “I don’t notice it… I just don’t see it anywhere. Maybe it’s somewhere, but not around me.”
Only three high school students showed up for the youth group on the day I was there, and the official gathering was canceled. So instead, we sat together and drank tea while I asked the students about their experience with antisemitism.
There was a similar consensus. Sometimes other students in school would say something mean, or teachers would teach a version of the Second World War that largely left out the Holocaust. It sounded very similar to high school in America, with an average level of antisemitism that made relatively little impact on any of the Jewish students.
Where was the rampant antisemitism?
Young adult Jews at Hillel centers in Kiev, Kharkiv and Odessa largely blew off questions about antisemitism in Ukraine. In Kiev, girls in a Hebrew class said they were watching the news about antisemitism in France, Germany and England with horror. In Odessa, I was answered with a “pfft.”
Krystina Tiahnyriadko, a 25-year-old medical student who works at the Jewish Agency center in Kharkiv, expressed complete exasperation on the topic.
Her grandmother grew up in the USSR and had lived in America for 30 years by the time Tiahnyriadko became involved in Hillel of Kharkiv. When her grandmother found out, “There were hysterics on the subject of antisemitism. You’ll be beaten up, you’ll get killed.”
Similarly, her grandmother thought a Star of David necklace was apocalyptically terrible. “What are you doing? Put on a cross,” her grandmother berated her. “Uh-uh, I have nothing better to do but buy crosses for myself,” Tiahnyriadko responded.
Eventually, her grandmother came back to visit Ukraine and was convinced the country had changed.
Tiahnyriadko excused reports of Ukrainian antisemitism within context of the ongoing war with Russia. Many Ukrainian Jews agree that most cases of vandalism, attacks and hateful graffiti are carried out under orders from Russia, meant to pit the Jewish community against Ukraine and destabilize an already weak post-revolution government.
As an example, she mentioned a case of vandalism in Uman, where Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is buried and where followers of the rabbi regularly come to visit his grave. In December 2016, a pig’s head with a swastika carved into its forehead was left inside a synagogue, where the walls were splashed with red paint.
But, Tiahnyriadko said, “It’s not antisemitism, it’s a provocation.”
The Ukrainian Jewish community is in crisis
Eduard Dolinsky, the director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, is usually the person loudly accusing Ukraine of antisemitism. He is quoted in almost every article on the subject across Jewish and non-Jewish media. He posts multiple times a day to his widely-followed Facebook page about instances of antisemitism in the country and regularly criticizes the Ukrainian government for not doing enough to protect minorities.
This makes him a hated man in many circles. Critics accuse Dolinsky of being an anti-Ukrainian agent of the Kremlin, part of Russia’s information war against the unstable country.
“Why cover it up when there is a problem?” He asks. “It just needs to be fought. The government can deserve more trust when it says ‘Yes, we see that there is a problem.’”
Since the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that resulted in the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian far-right nationalists have gained strong representation in the government. They’ve used that influence to lionize figures like Stepan Bandera, who fought against the Soviet Union for Ukranian independence, but who was also a Nazi collaborator and played a part in killing Jews during the Holocaust.
Dolinsky and others consider Bandera’s whitewashing open antisemitism and Holocaust-denial. But the Jewish community nonetheless has largely oriented itself in support of the post-revolution Ukraine, complicating an otherwise simple picture of nationalism being the enemy of the Jews.
For example, the progressive Jewish congregation Hatikvah, in Kiev, is in the process of printing prayer books that have transliteration and translation in Ukrainian, rather than Russian. And when Putin said his invasion of Crimea was justified under the pretense of fighting Ukrainian antisemitism, he received a public letter from the Ukrainian Jewish community disavowing his claim and supporting Ukraine.
Dolinsky readily admits, “There isn’t that huge antisemitism” that existed in Soviet times, but “antisemitic attitudes are very strong, and they’re getting stronger due to the political and economic crises.” As a result of the ongoing conflict with Russia, the Ukrainian economy is in shambles, and Ukrainians are frustrated with a government that has fulfilled few promises to fight corruption and stabilize the country.
Dolinsky is on one end of the spectrum of Ukrainian Jewish opinions on antisemitism. Yosef Zissels, executive director of the VAAD Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, is on the other. Zissels has polarized Ukrainian Jewish discourse and alienated many people due to his insistence that antisemitism in Ukraine is completely under control, and that there is no concern with the government making heroes of antisemites.
“We control [antisemitic hate crimes] 100%,” Zissels told me. “Not one incident passes by us that can be put into that category.” He also considers reports of Ukrainian antisemitic acts to be Russian provocations and said Dolinsky was lying about the situation in Ukraine.
Dolinsky doesn’t buy the excuse of antisemitic acts being provocations. He is adamant that the Ukrainian Jewish community and the global Jewish community are closing their eyes to reality.
“Many antisemitic acts occur in Ukraine. On the sites of mass shootings of Jews – vandalism. In cemeteries, in public spaces – insults, threats and similar acts. They even come from political parties. They come from different leaders at different levels. You can call them marginal, but it doesn’t matter. The problem is that the reaction from society is absent – and the reaction isn’t just absent from the civil society, but it’s absent from the law enforcement agencies. After all of these years, not a single person has been brought to justice.”
Speaking abstractly about antisemitism is nonsensical
“It’s impossible to say there’s a lot of antisemitism or a little antisemitism… it’s possible to talk about some kind of concrete things that you can measure, count and see the dynamics.”
Vyacheslav Likhachov is a researcher and the head of the Kiev-based Ethnic Minorities’ Rights Monitoring Group under the umbrella of VAAD, which has been releasing reports on Ukrainian antisemitism for more than a decade. He is viewed by critics as Zissels’s co-conspirator in whitewashing Ukraine, but Likhachov says that his focus is measurable methodology, not rhetoric.
Likhachov reported 24 antisemitic acts of vandalism for 2017, whereas a report by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry cited more than 130 acts of antisemitic vandalism, hate crimes and online hate speech, as reported by JTA. According to the ministry, Ukraine had the highest instance of antisemitism among all the former Soviet states.
The Diaspora Affairs Ministry report was criticized by Likhachov for being inconsistent and for using poor methodology, while Dolinsky accuses Likhachov of deliberately lying in his reporting, in order to protect Ukraine from accusations of antisemitism.
So who should be listened to? Which report is accurate? The answer is not so simple.
“What I am in agreement with and what my data also show, is that Ukraine has the largest number of antisemitic acts in the territory of the former Soviet Union,” Likhachov said. “This is true. But it doesn’t necessarily correlate with the level of antisemitism.”
Likhachov is dedicated, for better or worse, to consistency. He said that antisemitism has to be verifiable and understood in a wider context. But most importantly, he insisted, it must be recorded with a clear methodology over the course of many years, paying no heed to semantics.
“The problem is not, ‘Do we consider this antisemitism or not?’ We have different definitions of antisemitism. The problem is what we consider enough of a base to assert, ‘Yes, hate was a motive,’ specifically nationalistic and religious hate.”
For example, he said, “If the gates are stolen from a Jewish cemetery and used as scrap metal… Dolinsky will consider this an antisemitic act because it’s a Jewish cemetery. But I won’t. They’re using it as scrap metal. Maybe they know that it’s a Jewish cemetery, maybe they don’t know and don’t even pay attention. They don’t care.
“If we take the statistics of all the similar acts of vandalism on all cemeteries, we’ll see that there is no difference [between] a Jewish cemetery or non-Jewish cemetery.” This means that the violation of a Jewish cemetery won’t be recorded by Likhachov as an antisemitic act unless it is verified as having been done with hateful intent.
Likhachov insists that when the criteria for reporting antisemitic acts are consistent, it’s possible to see accurate trends of antisemitism in Ukraine year to year, even if the actual number of acts reported in a year may not be entirely accurate.
According to him, there is currently less antisemitism in Ukraine than in the past. But “I’m not discounting that it could get worse,” Likhachov said. “We’re in too good of a situation for it to be the truth for very long. There are factors that elicit concern – factors that aren’t relating concretely to Jews but to the overall situation in the country.”
Antisemitism always increases around elections, Likhachov said, and elections are slated for the spring of 2019.
We all have one enemy
While I was in Kiev, one of the guys at my hostel noticed the Israel-related stickers on my laptop and saw Likhachov’s reports on anti-semitism on my bed. He was curious about what I was doing. I told him I was working on a story about antisemitism in Ukraine, to which he laughed.
He’s a former skinhead. “We beat everybody – Jews, Arabs,” he told me.
“Oh I still believe in National Socialism, but I figure that if you don’t do anything to me, why should I do anything to you? Jews, Arabs, Israelis, people are coming to my country as guests, so I treat them that way. I believe in respecting people as long as you don’t act like an asshole.”
He insisted that there was no longer any antisemitism in Ukraine. The world is obsessed with painting Ukrainians as fascists and racists, he said, especially around Stepan Bandera.
“Bandera is our hero. He fought for Ukrainian independence. Why shouldn’t we celebrate him that way?” he said with pride. I didn’t ask him about the accusations of antisemitism.
Besides, he added, “We all have one enemy.” In other words, there’s no concern over Jews when there’s a war with Russia.
His ex-girlfriend, with whom he is still on good terms, moved to Israel and will soon be joining the Israeli Army. He criticized Ukraine for not supporting Ukrainian soldiers – many of whom are his friends – to the same degree Israel supports its soldiers.
A complex question
By the end of nearly two months in Ukraine, I was tired of asking, or hearing, about antisemitism.
Does it exist in Ukraine? Absolutely. But many Jews told me it was “like in your country,” and after the 2016 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, I couldn’t disagree.
Jewish cemeteries are vandalized in Ukraine and Jewish cemeteries are vandalized in the United States. Graffiti there, graffiti here. Jews are also attacked in New York. So why the obsession with Ukrainian antisemitism?
Because it’s Ukraine, the land of pogroms and the Holocaust; the place where Jewish history happened. When American white supremacists march with Nazi signs and slogans, it is disgusting. When Ukrainian nationalists do so, they march where their grandfathers and great-grandfathers actually collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
It’s true that the Ukrainian government has a poor record of defending the Jewish community. Those few people who are caught committing antisemitic acts are only charged with “hooliganism.” America, at least, has an enforceable definition of “hate crime” and working definitions of “antisemitism.”
There is no clear consensus on antisemitism in Ukraine – beyond the general feeling that calling Ukraine antisemitic means you are an agent of the Kremlin, while saying Ukraine isn’t antisemitic means you are whitewashing history. But regardless of the circumstances, Ukrainian Jewry is continuing its post-Soviet revival, raising a new generation of Jews who are far less afraid than their parents and grandparents are or were.
Out of many conversations, one of the few consistent points was how tired Ukrainian Jews are – even those tasked with keeping an eye on it – of discussing antisemitism. Some of their words left me feeling ashamed and intrusive, having come as an arrogant outsider with the expectation that the Jews of Ukraine needed to prove or disprove their reputation to me.
At the end of my interview with Likhachov, he said his wish was, “When people talk about the Jews of Ukraine, for the first association to not be antisemitism, but a spiritual, intelligent, cultural heritage of the Jewish community.” As for journalists “who write something about the Jews of Ukraine,” he hopes their attention will be drawn “not only to antisemitism but to other aspects of the rich cultural life of the Jewish community.”