Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a press conference after first exit poll results at his headquarters in Kyiv on March 31. Photo by Kostyantyn Chernichkin
No more anti-Semitism in Ukraine
15.04.2019, Xenophobia and anti-Semitism
Nearly one-third of Ukrainians voted for Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the first round of the country’s presidential elections. Since Zelenskiy is Jewish, and since he is apparently backed by businessman Ihor Kolomoisky, who is also Jewish, many Ukrainians have said that the old stereotype of Ukrainian anti-Semitism no longer applies.
Sadly, if Zelensky wins the runoff election and replaces Petro Poroshenko, it may lay the foundations for more nationalism – and more anti-Semitism – in the country. Not because Zelensky is Jewish but because Poroshenko’s loss will mark the end of EuroMaidan.
Growing up Jewish in Moscow I was too young to suffer from the anti-Semitism of the Soviet government, which set quotas on Jews in colleges and universities and limits on career advancement. I did encounter old-fashioned Jew-hatred in everyday life, but such incidents, although always ugly, were quite rare.
My friends and relatives in Ukraine seemed to have it a lot harder. They complained about anti-Semitism considerably more often. While no scientific polls of anti-Semitic attitudes were ever conducted anywhere in the USSR (since the bourgeois vice of ethnic hatred didn’t officially exist under communism), it was always assumed that Ukrainians were anti-Semitic.
Anti-Semitism has always been present in Europe in general and in Eastern and Central Europe in particular. Jews – and other outsiders – were regarded with suspicion and fear. A friend of mine who assembled what is perhaps the largest collection of Judaica from the old Pale of Settlement, explains that the reason so many Jewish documents survived in the region was that the locals identified Jews with black magic and the Devil. They somehow believed that if they destroyed objects with Hebrew or Yiddish writing, they would bring a curse upon themselves.
It is very much an open question whether hatred of Jews in Ukraine was stronger or weaker than in Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Hungary and elsewhere. But in recent years attitudes in Ukraine have certainly changed. A 2016 poll by Pew Research found that Ukrainians are far more accepting of their Jewish compatriots than other nations in Eastern, Central and Southern Europe.
This is surely the result of Maidan. Protests started in 2013 over the Viktor Yanukovych’s government failure to sign an association agreement with the E.U. Five years ago Ukrainians opted for the European path and Western Europe’s liberal democracy. Among its principles is citizenship based on birth, rather than nationality, ethnicity or culture, as well as acceptance of minorities and protection for their rights.
Rejection of anti-Semitism is an important aspect of Ukraine’s turn toward the West and away from its Soviet past. This is why Ukrainians have also torn down Lenin monuments, got rid of the remaining Soviet place name and started to stress their historic and cultural ties to the West and to non-Russian Slavs. Systemic discrimination against the Jews – disguised first as a campaign against “rootless cosmopolites” and then against Zionists – had been a consistent feature of the Soviet regime since World War II, much like the constant harping by the Soviet propaganda on the “brotherly friendship” of the Russian and Ukrainian people.
Yuri Fedorov, a Soviet dissident who participated in an attempted flight by a group of Jewish refuseniks out of the Soviet Union in 1970, told me once that some of the best people he met in his two decades in Soviet labor camps had been Ukrainian nationalists and Western Ukrainian resistance fighters. As they hated everything Soviet, they also despised Soviet anti-Semitism.
Adrian Karatnycky, a Ukrainian-American scholar, recently cited the number of Jewish elected officials and business leaders in Ukraine. He was making a point that, while fringe hate groups and conspiracy theorists unquestionably exist in Ukraine – as in practically any country in the world – Ukraine is not an anti-Semitic society.
This is true up to s point – and only as long as Ukraine sticks to its liberal European choice. To have Jewish political leaders is no guarantee of anything – and many anti-Semitic societies often have prominent Jews. Anti-Semitism still exists in Ukraine and it can flare up if Ukraine grows frustrated with Europe and opts for a nationalist choice. There are examples of such a shift literally next door: in Hungary and Poland, where current nationalist, Eurosceptic regimes have turned toward anti-Semitism.
What is called anti-Semitism today should be divided into two parts. Criticism of the State of Israel and its policies toward Palestinians living under its occupation on the West Bank or blockaded in Gaza is often termed Jew-hatred, whereas acceptance of the State of Israel and its right to exist is somehow taken to be a sign of acceptance of the Jews.
The reality is more complex. While there has been some ideologically motivated attacks on Jews from the left, traditional European anti-Semitism is a right-wing phenomenon. It germinated in nationalist, traditionalist and other retrograde circles and focused on Jews as aliens polluting the healthily homogenous nation, agents of change and bearers of new ideas.
In many respects, diaspora Jews in Europe and the United States remain liberal and are thus disliked by the newly emerging nationalist politicians. This creates an apparent paradox: authoritarian nationalist leaders such as Viktor Orban and Donald Trump have a great relationship with Israel’s newly re-elected right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu while stoking anti-Semitism at home, attacking their own liberal Jews and even hinting at a global Jewish conspiracy, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has done in his feud with philanthropist George Soros.
Poroshenko is a EuroMaidan President. That was when he was elected, and for the past four years he has pursued the policy of moving Ukraine to the Western camp. It has been a slow process – frustratingly so for many Ukrainian voters. There have been many impediments to overcome, on both sides, as political alliances had to be formed or reshaped and attitudes changed.
Liberal democracy in general and the European Union, in particular, are not based on miracles. They believe in steady, incremental progress. Even slow change causes dislocations and backsliding, as we see, once again, in Hungary and Poland. Frustrated by the lack of visible progress, Ukrainians demand more radical, decisive action. They think they can get it from a television personality – perhaps because television is where miracles do happen and where disbelief can be readily suspended.
If Poroshenko is defeated on April 21, the EuroMaidan era of Ukrainian history will come to an end. It may be revived at some later date, but for the time being, Ukraine will try something else. It is doubtful that negotiating with Putin and accepting even some of his demands will bring peace and stability on terms that Ukrainians will find acceptable. This may leave the country with the other option – authoritarian right-wing nationalism, which will also mean the revival of anti-Semitic attitudes in public life.
By Alexei Bayer