Drohobych's Choral Synagogue stands behind a photo of how it looked before restoration. Photo by Kostyantyn Chernichkin
The Ukrainian-Jewish relationship is solid
01.05.2019, Communities of Eurasia
When Ukrainians go to the polls on April 21 to vote in the second round of presidential elections, they will have celebrated a remarkable achievement: in an election with a Jewish frontrunner, anti-Semitism has not been a factor in the campaign.
International media have frequently sensationalized and alleged the presence of widespread anti-Semitism in Ukraine. This has been particularly the case since the 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution, which ended Viktor Yanukovych’s reign and brought Petro Poroshenko to power. Immediately after Poroshenko’s election, when Ukraine’s pro-Russian forces were swept out of power, Russian media widely proclaimed that pro-Nazi “fascists” had taken over Ukraine. In recent years, Western and Israeli media have extensively covered the rare incidents of vandalism of Jewish sites in Ukraine, yet too often ignored calls by the country’s Jewish leaders to take a deeper look at the positive evolution of the Ukrainian-Jewish relationship.
The candidacy of front-runner Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is Jewish, is the latest evidence of an important change in attitude in Ukraine. Zelenskiy’s ethnicity is virtually a non-issue in the campaign. Indeed, should he be elected he would not be the first politician of Jewish background in Ukraine to hold high office. The country’s current Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman has been in his post since 2016.
“This is an interesting time to think about the Ukrainian-Jewish relationship,” Adrian Karatnycky, co-director of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, a Canadian non-profit dedicated to building understanding between the two peoples, told an audience in New York late last month. “The most interesting thing is if [Zelenskiy] were to be elected, Ukraine apart from Israel would be the only country in the world to ever have had simultaneously a president and prime minister of Jewish origin. And a more wonderful and interesting thing is that it is not an issue for Ukrainians. Maybe on the fringes, there are a few off-color remarks. But even the Ukrainian far-right is not engaging in anti-Semitism.”
Ukraine has over the centuries struggled with anti-Semitism. The territory that comprises contemporary Ukraine suffered the murder of 1.5 million Jews during the Shoah in what is known as the Holocaust by Bullets. Those atrocities often occurred with the help of some of the local population. And, Hitler’s Nazi atrocities and those of Stalin deserve deeper understanding and memorialization.
However, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last year revealed that only five percent of Ukrainians would dislike having Jews as their fellow citizens. This is the lowest level observed in all the countries of Eastern and Central Europe.
The socio-political changes that have led Ukraine to this remarkable point of tolerance are varied, but nonetheless significant.
The opening of the country’s Soviet-era archives has allowed scholars to probe for a more thorough and balanced view of the country’s past vis-à-vis Ukrainians and Jews. Ukraine’s two leading universities, the Kyiv Mohyla Academy and the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, have founded faculties dedicated to Jewish studies, where the majority of their students are Ukrainian. These departments have developed partnerships with institutions in Israel, leading to regular exchanges.
Ukrainian museums, even those in the regions, have embraced the need to better highlight Ukraine’s multi-ethnic character despite a severe shortage of funds and manpower, community or Jewish artifacts.
The western city of Lviv, often seen as the hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism, has been at the forefront of this change. In 2017, the city saw the unveiling of the “Territory of Terror” museum, which has the challenging task of showing the effects of the totalitarian regimes of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Last year, Lviv hosted several important Jewish exhibitions, including a rare display of artifacts from the collection of Maximilian Goldstein, a distinguished collector of Jewish antiquities and art who perished at the Janowska concentration camp in December 1942. Another exhibit which explores the Ukrainian-Jewish relationship and is sponsored by the UJE will open this May at the Lviv Historical Museum.
At the other end of the country, the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro is home to the Menorah Center, one of the largest Jewish community centers in the world.
On the literary front, the Lviv Book Forum, the Meridian Czernowitz International Poetry Festival, and the Agnon Literary Center in Buchach in western Ukraine have featured Jewish themes in their programs, furthering a greater appreciation for the rich literary heritage both people share. The contemporary generation of Ukrainian writers, poets, and translators have incorporated Jewish themes and characters in their works.
Books by important Yiddish- and Hebrew-language writers who have ties to Ukraine, such as Aharon Appelfeld and Amos Oz, both who died last year, have or are being translated into Ukrainian, providing a wider understanding of the Ukrainian-Jewish experience. Conversely, contemporary Ukrainian writers are seeing their works appear in Hebrew, gaining praise from their Israeli counterparts.
Importantly, Ukrainians have looked at Israel as an example of nation-building to challenging conditions. Last year, the New Europe Center and the UJE held a conference in Kyiv that shared the Israeli experience in the various levels of state-building with Ukrainian civil servants and civil society. An important part of the discussion was how to develop a civil society while living with aggressive neighbors.
Ukraine and Israel today cooperate on many levels in government and business, including the IT sector. So many people travel between Ukraine and Israel that Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport can boast four or five flights, at a minimum, from Tel Aviv on any given day. Ukrainian cultural festivals in Tel Aviv sponsored by the Israeli NGO Israeli Friends of Ukraine and the Ukrainian embassy in Israel have become so popular organizers happily lament the need for a larger space.
Whatever one’s electoral preferences, Ukraine already has one clear winner in this presidential race: an ever-strengthening Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter.
By Natalia A. Feduschak
Natalia A. Feduschak is director of communications at the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.