“Jews and the New Ukraine”: a seminal discussion in London

23 April 2019, 06:05 | Monitoring | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 

Maria Montague

The Ukrainian Weekly, Mar 22, 2019

Jewish communities have lived on the territory of contemporary Ukraine since the late ninth century, yet the Jewish-Ukrainian identity is a very recent phenomenon. Jews in Ukraine who previously self-identified as Soviet Jews or Russian Jews increasingly see themselves as Ukrainian Jews, particularly following the Euro-Maidan revolution of 2013-2014.

This identity shift, as well as the complex history of Jewish-Ukrainian relations, was explored in a landmark discussion on January 29 with experts Prof. Yaroslav Hrytsak (Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv), Josef Zissels (chairman of the VAAD Association of Jewish Communities of Ukraine) and Mark Freiman (attorney and board member of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter), and moderated by renowned British journalist Peter Pomerantsev. The event was organized by the Ukrainian Institute London, in partnership with the Jewish Community Center JW3, where it was held, and Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, which sponsored it.

“It’s very hard to tell one story of Ukrainian-Jewish relations; there are several stories,” commented Prof. Hrytsak. On the one hand, there is a long history of the Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue. A particularly important period of solidarity between Jews and Ukrainians was the emergence of Zionism and Ukrainian nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, as these movements were both in resistance to the imperial rule of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires over the territory of modern-day Ukraine. Prof. Hrytsak noted the first national group to demand that Jews should be recognized as a nation was the Ukrainians, and in 1908 a Ukrainian deputy argued for this in the Austro-Hungarian Parliament.

On the other hand, there is a long record of anti-Jewish violence on the territory of Ukraine: starting with massacres of Jews at the time of the Khmelnytsky uprising in the mid-17th century, pogroms during the Russian Empire, anti-Semitism in the USSR, and the Holocaust under the Nazis. “This is a very painful, long record,” said Prof. Hrytsak.

How has a new Jewish Ukrainian identity emerged from this fractured history? The turning point was the establishment of the Ukrainian state in 1991, which brought with it the possibility for Jews to identify with the new ruling elite.

But this possibility was not realized until the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 and, even more importantly, the Euro-Maidan Revolution of 2013-2014. The Euro-Maidan sparked fundamental shifts in Ukrainian identity and a turn towards Europe. Jews took part in this movement, Mr. Zissels underscored, and three of the Heavenly Hundred killed during the Euro-Maidan were Jewish.

“After 1991, we started rebuilding Jewish schools and synagogues. The state did not really help us, but they did not stand in the way either. People in Ukraine live in freedom. I feel affinity to Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and others, as we are part of the same political nation. But I do not feel much in common with the Soviet or Russian Jews who retained the Soviet identity, even though we share the same ethnic and religious roots,” said Mr. Zissels.

The increased patriotism following the Euro-Maidan, however, is not without complexity. Mr. Freiman highlighted there are two visions of the “new Ukraine.” The first is of a liberal, pro-European state, where Ukrainian nationhood is based on a civic rather than ethnic identity. However, Mr. Freiman cautioned that there is another vision, which is based on ethnic definitions. Here, Mr. Freiman indirectly refers to the ultra-right parties in Ukraine that promote an ethnic conception of Ukrainian identity. However, in contrast to the narratives pushed by Russian state media, public support for these right-wing groups is minimal.

Mr. Zissels emphasized that the right-wing nationalistic parties in Ukraine garnered less than 2 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections. Furthermore, levels of anti-Semitism in Ukraine are much lower than in other countries in Europe. Mr. Zissels cited statistics on the number of annual anti-Semitic incidents across Europe, relating to either physical violence or vandalism: 600 in Britain, 2,000 in Germany and 800 in France. In Ukraine, there has not been a single physical attack against Jews in the last year, and only 12 incidents of anti-Semitic violence.

Prof. Hrytsak also reiterated that there is much less anti-Semitism in Ukraine than elsewhere in Europe, citing a recent study by the Pew Research Center. This does not imply that lower-lying anti-Semitism is not a problem in Ukraine, however. Prof. Hrytsak noted that there is a theme in popular conversation about “the Jewish yoke” in Ukraine, which has resurfaced in the context of the upcoming presidential elections. Yet, no politician on the state level dares to make anti-Semitism a topic in public discourse – and since the dissolution of the USSR and Ukrainian independence in 1991, there has been no state anti-Semitism.

Dilemmas of historic memory

Another question that complicates the understanding of anti-Semitism in Ukraine (and which is exploited by Kremlin-backed propaganda) is the controversial figure of Stepan Bandera, with whom the ultra-right groups are associated. Bandera was one of the leaders of the Ukrainian national movement, first against the Nazis and then against the Soviets, and by 1941 he was in a Nazi concentration camp.

“If you want to see Ukrainians divided, talk about Bandera,” said Prof. Hrytsak. Bandera is remembered by many Ukrainians as a freedom fighter, while others depict him as an anti-Semite and Nazi collaborationist. Such paradoxes in historical memory are hardly unique to Ukraine, noted Mr. Pomerantsev, and he drew the examples in Britain of Sinn Fein being viewed as heroes or as terrorists, and the challenge of how to deal with Britain’s colonial history.

Mr. Zissels commented, “Neither Bandera nor [Roman] Shukhevych [a military leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army] are personal heroes for me. Because I am a Jew and I have this ancestral memory. But I understand why they are heroes for half of Ukrainians. They died for Ukraine’s independence; and this is enough. I do not think that any Ukrainians glorify these heroes for supposedly killing Jews; people do not think about this. They died for Ukraine, and that’s enough.”

Mr. Zissels also noted there is another story to tell of Ukrainians during the Holocaust: there were also around 2,500 Ukrainians who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis.

The many fractures and paradoxes in the history of Ukrainian-Jewish relations make the recent emergence of a new Jewish-Ukrainian identity all the more striking. This panel discussion delved into very many issues, and the lively Q&A session with the audience touched upon even more challenging questions about Jewish and Ukrainian identity and historical memory.

The overarching message, though, was that anti-Semitism is much less prevalent in contemporary Ukraine than might be expected, and that a shared vision for a new democratic and inclusive Ukraine has united Jews and Ukrainians. As highlighted by Prof. Hrytsak, “For the first time, there’s a Jewish Ukrainian identity and this is something to cherish.”

Readers may view a video of the discussion here: https://ukrainianjewishencounter.org/en/londons-landmark-discussion-on-jews-and-new-ukraine/.

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