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A monument commemorating victims of Babi Yar in Kiev. .(Photo by: REUTERS)
The timing is right to reset Israeli-Ukrainian relations
By BORIS LOZHKIN
08/18/2019
Netanyahu’s visit to Ukraine – home to the fourth-largest Jewish community in Europe – seems especially appropriate this year.
As Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Kiev this week, becoming the first Israeli prime minister to visit Ukraine in 20 years,
international attention has largely focused on his political ambitions back home to explain the timing of this long-overdue trip. However, what commentators have failed to mention is the visit’s historic and cultural significance that goes far beyond winning over Ukrainian Israeli voters in the Knesset elections on September 17.

Netanyahu’s visit to Ukraine – home to the fourth-largest Jewish community in Europe – seems especially appropriate this year. This is not only because Ukrainians voted in a Jewish president in April, making Ukraine the only state besides Israel where both the president and prime minister are Jewish. Two very different but equally momentous developments this year have meant that Netanyahu’s appearance coincides with a reinvigoration of Israeli-Ukrainian relations.

• First, the signing of a historic free trade agreement between Ukraine and Israel in January of this year marked the beginning of a new chapter in cooperation between the two countries. The agreement – a result of five years of negotiations – will unlock significant investment opportunities for both economies and pave the way for a potential increase in bilateral trade to over US $2 billion annually. The deal is expected to be ratified by the Knesset after the elections in Israel next month; this should be high on any agenda during meetings in Kiev.

 • Then, in May, senior Israeli diplomats, politicians and community leaders joined other Jewish luminaries from the US, Europe and Ukraine for the inaugural Kiev Jewish Forum – the first international event of its kind held in Ukraine – debating issues facing global Jewry today. Organized by the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine to promote deeper ties between the Ukrainian Jewish population and the global Jewish community, the forum’s success reflects the country’s growing influence in shaping the global Jewish discussion.

 The attendance of senior representatives such as Knesset’s director-general Albert Sakharovich, the president of the World Jewish Congress Ronald S. Lauder and the US special envoy for Monitoring and Combating antisemitism Elan Carr sent a clear signal about Ukraine’s changing status in the global Jewish community. Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine, Joel Lion, remarked during the forum that “with or without a Jewish president, Ukraine today is a strong ally of the State of Israel.”

Much of this shift in international perceptions toward Ukraine relates to the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014 and the country’s resistance to ongoing Russian military aggression. These historic developments have been crucial for the acceleration of democratic processes and the activation of civil society in Ukraine – and how the country is seen internationally.

Israelis have been more than just impartial observers of these historic changes in Ukraine. Donor organizations, such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews have provided much-needed support to local Jewish communities in eastern Ukraine and helped to mobilize grassroots volunteer movements in response to the refugee and humanitarian crisis. Israel has also welcomed hundreds of Ukrainian olim (immigrants) from some of the areas that have been hit the hardest by the conflict in Ukraine.

In recent years, another opportunity for cooperation with Israel has started gaining traction. As Ukrainians accelerated their nation-building process, becoming more aware of their national identity in the wake of the foreign invasion, they started turning inward to better understand their past. For Ukraine, a country with a long, rich and complex Jewish history, this shift is particularly important – this is where joint educational initiatives to raise awareness of the Holocaust and the contribution of Jews to the development of Ukrainian society will prove to be an effective long-term investment.

It comes as no surprise that a prominent part of the short trip, besides his meeting with the Ukrainian president, is a visit to the site of the Babi Yar Memorial Center – a new international project to commemorate the 34,000 Jews who were mass-murdered by Nazis in ravines outside of Kiev in 1941.

The commemoration and preservation of Ukraine’s Jewish heritage is also one of the key priorities for the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine. We are working closely with the Jerusalem-based World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem, on the Righteous in My City initiative, which commemorates people who risked their own lives saving Jews during the Second World War. The project involves working with local authorities in towns around Ukraine to rename streets after the Righteous as well as raising awareness in local communities about their stories and their sacrifice.

Ukraine and Israel must continue to build on their shared Jewish heritage and strengthen their partnership through various joint initiatives in economic, security and cultural spheres. Ukrainians have a lot to learn from Israel, which has managed to thrive despite being surrounded by hostile neighbors – an experience particularly pertinent for the eastern European country right now.
This year – political agendas aside – conditions are ripe to boost Ukraine-Israeli relations to the next level.

The author is president, Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and vice president, World Jewish Congress
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