Ukraine party attempts to lose anti-Semitic image

Yuri Syrotyuk, senior figure in the Svoboda party, says Jews have nothing to fear in his country.

Svoboda party activists 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)
Svoboda party activists 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)
KRAKOW – The Ukraine’s parliamentary elections in October 2012 brought bad news to the Jews living in the country. For the first time since it took part in the general elections, the far-Right Svoboda (“Freedom”) party had won a number of parliamentary seats – surprising even its biggest fans.
Svoboda was established in 1991 and became an official political party in 1995.
From the first moment, it carried the banner of nationalism and anti-Communism, playing on the patriotic feelings of the Ukrainians.
Its electoral campaign was based on frightening the people, especially those of lower economical status, by describing Jews and Russians as enemies of the state and accusing them of controlling Ukrainian politics and economics.
In last year’s election, Svoboda surprised everyone when it won 10.44 percent of the national vote and 38 out of 450 parliamentary seats. Shortly thereafter, Svoboda leader Oleg Tyagnibok tried to change the anti- Semitic image of the party.
Eleanor Groisman, president of the Ukrainian Independent Council of Jewish Women, said Tyagnibok assured her that his party is not anti-Semitic, and that the Jewish women in the Ukraine should not worry. That same day, she said, he reiterated that statement at a public briefing, in response to a question put to him by a reporter for the Kiev Jewish media.
However, a few weeks later, the nationalist tone of party members became more extreme. Svoboda MP Igor Miroshnichenko sparked a scandal when he called Mila Kunis, an American actress of Jewish descent born in the Ukraine, “Zhidovka” – an offensive word used to degrade Ukrainian citizens of Jewish nationality. Tyagnibok and other Svoboda members defended the statement and argued that “Zhyd” is the correct word to use in describing Jews.
Growing concern then led Ukranian Jewish community leaders to publish a public appeal to the international community regarding the rising anti-Semitism.
In the open letter, Groisman described the fear among the Jewish citizens of Ukraine since the rise of Svoboda, and expressed their concern about the growing anti-Semitism and accompanying rhetoric by Svoboda’s leaders. The letter then called upon leaders in the international community to take steps before the situation worsens.
Yuri Syrotyuk, a senior member of Svoboda, claimed the party is not anti-Semitic and that Jews in the Ukraine have no reason to fear.
“This is absolutely not true. Svoboda spreads nationalism with love for our country and respect for other nations,” he said.
“There have never been any anti-Semitic calls or actions by Svoboda. Many representatives of your people [the Jews] are in the Ukrainian parliament and among the richest citizens of Ukraine.”
“Could that happen in a country where anti-Semitism is widespread? Svoboda is a parliamentary party and its intention can be judged by its actions and appeals in the parliament.
Can someone cite at least one xenophobic bill or performance? Obviously not,” he asserted.
Syrotyuk stated that Jews can feel safe living in the Ukraine, as other minorities do.
“Ukraine is still a safe country for all those living in its territory. Every citizen has the right to decide where to live, and no one has the right to dictate to anyone regarding this issue. Our common objective is to eliminate anti-Ukrainian, undemocratic regimes, and to build an independent, law-abiding state, where all feel good about themselves as Ukrainians or ethnic minorities living in Ukraine,” he says.
“By the way, Svoboda supports the right of all ethnic minorities to participate in government, education, language and more,” Syrotyuk added.
When asked about using the word “Zhyd” as a slur, Syrotyuk claimed that there is nothing offensive about it.
“The word ‘Zhyd’ is a common Slavic definition for Jews in most European countries,” he explains.
“Another definition simply does not exist in the Slovak, Czech or Polish language. This word has never had a negative or offensive connotation in any Slavic language.”