Ukrainian Jewish leaders spar over JAFI meeting

Ukrainian Jewish leaders protest gathering of JAFI board of governors in Kiev; opponents say confab sanctions anti-Semitism.

Ukranian Jewish Committee’s MP Oleksandr Feldman 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Ukranian Jewish Committee’s MP Oleksandr Feldman 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Ukrainian Jewish leaders, academics and activists are protesting a gathering of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors that is slated to take place in Kiev in June.
Josef Zissels, chairman of the Vaad of Ukraine and of the General Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, sent a letter protesting against the conference to the agency’s chairman Natan Sharansky and members of its board stating that his opposition was due to the unmistakable “assault on political and social rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens.”
“We, the representatives of the Jewish community and the leaders of a number of Ukrainian Jewish organizations, scholars and former Soviet political prisoners are concerned” over the announcement of the July gathering, the letter obtained by The Jerusalem Post stated.
It cited “the loss of freedom for key leaders of the opposition” and allegations of electoral fraud.
Expressing concerns over the rise of the anti-Semitic, far-right Svoboda party, the signatories asserted that “democratization” can only occur “if serious pressure is applied.”
“As things now stand,” the letter continued, “the very fact of holding a largescale international forum such as the JAFI [Jewish Agency for Israel] board of governors visiting sessions will harm the informal international isolation that the Ukrainian authorities are currently facing, and thus will certainly be in great use by the authorities as propaganda.”
Moreover, Zissels and his colleagues believe, this will “doubtlessly provoke an increase in anti-Semitic attitudes” and, therefore, the decision to hold the meeting is “untimely.”
Among the signatories to the letter are Vadim Shulman, the president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, Anatoly Podolsky, the director of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies, Igor Kuperberg, the chairman of the Zionist Federation of Ukraine, and Prof. Alexey Khamray, the leader of the Conservative Jewish community in Kiev.
Other signatories include former political prisoner and vice rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, Miroslav Marinovich, and Vitaly Portnikov, the president of the TVi television company.
In an email to members of the board of governors, Zissel asked that they “consider our arguments.”
“We see all the positive and negative aspects of holding the next session of the board of the Jewish Agency in Ukraine and consider that the negative ones far outweigh the positive ones,” he wrote.
One person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named, said that “at a time that the Ukrainian government is being accused of serious human rights violations, it is very strange that the Jewish Agency is to hold its summer board of governors in Kiev.”
Saying that anti-Semitism is “rife” in Ukraine, he asserted that “the Ukrainian government will use the fact that the Jewish Agency, headed by former Soviet human rights activist and Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky, is holding its board of governors in Kiev to show that it [Ukraine] is being wrongly accused of human rights violations and not doing enough to fight anti-Semitism.”
Not all Ukrainian Jewish leaders agreed with Zissels, however.
In an email to the Post on Thursday, MP Oleksandr Feldman, a Jewish member of parliament and the president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, said that he “strongly opposes the call to cancel JAFI board meeting in Ukraine.”
Feldman said that Zissels’ letter was a “miserable attempt to pull JAFI and especially Ukrainian Jews into political games.”
Feldman said that most of the letter’s signatories were “not Jews, but active Ukrainian opposition [politicians] and that following their logic, JAFI and the Jewish community should stop its all activities in Ukraine.”
He said that he was looking forward to the upcoming board of governors meeting and that Zissels and his colleagues “in no way represent the Jewish community of Ukraine.”
There will soon be a meeting of the Jewish Community Coordination Council to react to this “provocation,” Feldman told the Post. “I, myself and all my colleagues are looking forward to JAFI board meeting in Kiev which we believe will strengthen the bonds between Israel and the Diaspora [and] will help in the revival of the Jewish community of Ukraine.”
Ukrainian Jewish tycoon Vadim Rabinovich also weighed in against Zissels, telling the Post that the leaders of the Jewish community were “surprised by the fact that only one person has taken the responsibility to speak on behalf of the whole community of Ukraine.”
“Today a refusal to hold a meeting of the board will hit the Jewish community of Ukraine. The Jewish community has always been, is and will be out of politics. That is why we hope that a right decision will be taken and the meeting will be held successfully in Kiev in 2013,” Rabinovich said.
Zissels and Shulman’s claims have also been disputed by Sharansky and Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine and president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, an organization that, along with Zissels’s Vaad, is an affiliate of European Jewish Congress.
“We believe it to be both wrong and irresponsible to politicize the upcoming meeting by relating it to issues of Ukrainian political discourse,” Bleich said.
Sharansky and board of governors chairman James Tisch replied to Zissels in a letter of their own to board members.
“In response to concerns raised by board members and partners, we have consulted with numerous community leaders and held discussions with a great many representatives of Ukraine’s Jewish community,” they wrote.
Sharansky and Tisch urged board members to not cancel their travel plans, saying that “it is extremely important for us and for the local community that there is a strong showing at this summer’s board of governors meeting.”
JTA contributed to this report.