Antisemitism in Ukraine?

Within the last 450 years of the major Jewish presence in Ukraine, only 16 to 20 at most were marked by periods of violence.

A Holocaust memorial commemorating the murder of some 900 Jews in Golovanevsk, Ukraine was vandalized on Tuesday. (photo credit: (NATIONAL POLICE OF UKRAINE))
A Holocaust memorial commemorating the murder of some 900 Jews in Golovanevsk, Ukraine was vandalized on Tuesday.
The recent elections in Ukraine have prompted some political commentators to note with a degree of surprise – even astonishment – that alongside Israel, Ukraine is the only country in the world that has a president and a prime minister, both of whom are Jewish. Why the surprise and astonishment? Because Ukraine historically has a reputation of being rife with antisemitism. Whether or not such a reputation is justified, the antisemitic stereotype of Ukraine exists to this day, in particular among Diaspora Jews and their sympathizers in various parts of the Western world.
Despite some proto-state structures and efforts to gain independence in the past, Ukraine as a sovereign state only came into being in 1991, a mere 28 years ago. In other words, Ukraine was, until then, ruled by other states.
The second factor is the multinational character of Ukraine. Although ethnic Ukrainians are the numerical majority, they have always lived alongside many others: what we may call a dominant and subordinate peoples. And so, when we use the term Ukrainian, we are really referring to citizens of a country who derive from a whole host of ethno-national or religious backgrounds, only one of which is ethnic Ukrainian.
Among the subordinate minority peoples who historically inhabited Ukrainian lands were the Jews. It was only in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that significant numbers of Jews settled permanently in Ukrainian lands. This was a time when most of Ukraine was ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. Jews were granted certain privileges by the ruling Polish kings, while the socioeconomic status of ethnic Ukrainians and other peoples was worsening.
That was also a time when the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth entered a period of decline that lasted until 1795, when Poland-Lithuania literally disappeared from the map of Europe. From then on, Ukrainian lands were ruled by two states: the Russian Empire and the Austrian Empire. By the end of the nineteenth century, the number of Jews in Ukrainian lands had increased to nearly 2.9 million.
The roughly two million Jews who inhabited Ukrainian lands in the Russian Empire were restricted to residing in an area known as the Pale of Settlement. By contrast, the 850,000 who inhabited “Ukrainian” lands of the Austrian Empire (Galicia, Bukovina, Transcarpathia) could reside anywhere they wished, and enjoyed rights equal to all other subjects of Austria’s Hapsburg rulers.
After World War I and the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires in 1917-1918, Jews in present-day Ukraine found themselves in four new states: the Soviet Union, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. This political situation lasted until the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, and the Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
When World War II ended in 1945, the Ukrainian lands as we know them today were for the first time in history under the rule of one state – the Soviet Union. This situation lasted until the Soviet Union came to an end in late 1991, when independent Ukraine was born.
One result of these political changes was that, for the longest time, there were no “Ukrainian Jews.” Of course, Jews lived in what we today know as Ukraine, but they were designated by others – and by themselves – as Russian Jews, Polish Jews, or Austrian Jews (perhaps Galitzianer), Carpathian Jews or Soviet Jews.
UKRAINE’S JEWS, at least since the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, have shared the fate of all minority peoples living on Ukrainian lands. Particularly fruitful have been the economic, linguistic and cultural interactions between Jews and ethnic Ukrainians. By the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these interactions and mutual influences were particularly noticeable in socioeconomic life, as well as in literature, the arts, music and theater.
Jews, as well as Roman Catholic Poles and Greek Catholic ethnic Ukrainians, were killed during the mid-seventeenth century Chmelnicki uprising and the late eighteenth-century Haidamak revolts. A century later, Jews were singled out as victims of the first pogroms that occurred under Russian rule. The worst of the pogroms took place in 1919 during the Russian Civil War. Finally, the mid-twentieth century Holocaust came, along with the general destruction of World War II.
It is the memory of these destructive events that has contributed to the perpetuation of the antisemitic stereotype attached to Ukraine and to all Ukrainians. As one Jewish visitor from Israel (Daniel K. Eisenbud) noted a few years ago in The Jerusalem Post (November 15, 2012): “Despite Ukraine’s undeniable bucolic beauty,” because of its “flagrant antisemitism... I in turn began to view it as the ugliest place I had ever set foot in.” But are such stereotypical attitudes justified?
Within the last 450 years of the major Jewish presence in Ukraine, only 16 to 20 at most were marked by periods of violence. In other words, Jews lived alongside ethnic Ukrainians and other peoples of Ukraine for 430 years in a state of cooperative tolerance, if not harmony. It was during those years that mutual relations and influences were prominent.
This, then, is the larger context for the recent presidential elections that we have just witnessed. Whatever the future may bring, I view the electoral results as a great success; success in the sense that the election campaign revealed the degree of political maturity of Ukrainian society.
It seems that hardly anyone gave a second thought to the ethnic or religious background of the candidates. Volodymyr Zelenskyi, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian, may be of concern to some because of his inexperience; to others he represents a positive new face in the government. But the fact that he is of Jewish background was irrelevant during the electoral campaign.
The problem with negative stereotypes about Ukraine is derived from a superficial understanding of the past. Too much history based on cherry-picked facts might lead one to agree with one Israeli commentator, the Auschwitz survivor Yehuda Elkana who, writing recently about the Holocaust on the pages of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (April 25, 2019), raised the issue about “the need to forget.”
For a people like the Jews, whose cultural and educational formation requires them never to forget, Elkana’s suggestion about “the need to forget” is simply unrealistic, some would say immoral. I would suggest that while one should not forget, one should make every effort to learn, contextualize and remember not only the horrors of the past but also the very many positive aspects of Jewish life in Ukraine. Such contextualized learning is the only real basis on which to assure an ongoing healthy relationship between Jewish Ukrainians, ethnic Ukrainians, and all other Ukrainians regardless of their ethno-linguistic or religious background.
The writer is a professor of history, political science, and the chairman of Ukrainian studies at the University of Toronto.