Ukrainian chief rabbi mixes into political fray

"This is a time for patience and an open mind," says Dov Bleich; talks between government, opposition reach stalemate.

Anti-government protesters in Ukraine 370 (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Anti-government protesters in Ukraine 370
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
The organized Ukrainian Jewish community has split on its approach toward the country’s current political crisis this weekend, with Chief Rabbi Dov Bleich, head of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, attending failed talks between the government and opposition protesters. Last week, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, a separate Jewish group, made a public call for Jews to remain neutral and to maintain a low profile.
In a statement on Thursday, the American- born Bleich said he was “very confident” the round-table discussions could lead to a breakthrough despite the current stalemate.
“All parties have the best interests of the country at heart but this is a time for patience and an open mind,” he said. “The Jewish community of Ukraine has enjoyed a positive relationship with the government but is known to be largely pro-European,” read the statement, which was jointly issued by Bleich and the Conference of European Rabbis.
President Viktor Yanukovich, yielding to calls from the international community, began round-table talks with the opposition to try to find a way out of the conflict which has put Ukraine at the center of an East-West tug-of-war.
But with the opposition insisting on core demands such as the dismissal of his government, the talks seemed unlikely to head off another outpouring of anger against him on Sunday.
The round-table talks represented the first direct encounter any of the three opposition leaders have had with Yanukovich in months of crisis around his policy towards Europe.
This came to a head on November 21 when his government suddenly backed off a landmark trade-and-political agreement with the European Union after years of preparation, and announced it was reviving trade relations instead with former overseer Moscow.
Since then, the capital has been roiled by sometimes harshly handled pro-Europe rallies, involving hundreds of thousands of people at the weekends, who accuse Yanukovich of turning the clock back and selling out national interests to the Kremlin.
The meeting between the sides came as protesters streamed into the capital from mainly western regions for a mass rally on Sunday, boosting thousands already camped out on Kiev’s Independence Square, focal point of recent demonstrations.
The close proximity of the two opposing camps has led some to worry that the two sides may come to blows.
Yanukovich on Saturday dismissed the head of Kiev’s state administration, Oleksandr Popov, and a national security aide over November 30 violence in which riot police used batons and stun grenades to disperse the crowd at the Maidan.
Several Jewish leaders have expressed their concerns over the prominent role that the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party has played in the protests. Svoboda’s leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, unlike many in the European far Right, is a supporter of greater European integration, due to his opposition to what he considers undue Russian influence in the former Soviet republic. He has stated that he believes his country “is being controlled by a Russian-Jewish mafia.” Svoboda has 36 out of 450 seats in the parliament, 8 percent.
It is precisely this worry that led the Ukrainian Jewish Congress, a body founded by Jewish oligarch and legislator Oleksandr Feldman, to call for communal neutrality.
Feldman, an independent, is part of Yanukovich’s governing coalition and has previously defended the president’s policy towards the European Union.
“Yanukovich has certainly moved to repair relations with Russia, but he has also set firm limits on how far he is prepared to go,” Feldman wrote in an article on Opendemocracy.
net in 2010. “Forced to choose between a customs union with Russia and a free trade area with the EU, Kiev continues to make clear an overwhelming preference for the latter.
“The influential industrial lobby from Yanukovich’s home region of Donetsk wants access to the bigger and more business friendly markets of Europe,” Feldman wrote. “To portray Yanukovich’s desire to rebalance his country’s diplomatic focus as an attempt to subordinate Ukraine to Russia’s will is therefore mischievous and false.”
Following clashes between police and protesters in the early morning hours on Wednesday, members of Kiev’s Jewish community gathered in the city’s Brodsky Synagogue to recite psalms for peace.
“We cannot be indifferent in this moment,” local Chabad Rabbi Moshe Azman said. “We pray to the Almighty to help Ukraine and give His blessing to its people.”
JTA contributed to this report.