Why are Jews in Ukraine Optimistic?

By Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC’s Director of International Jewish Affairs

Tensions in Ukraine have eased somewhat following presidential elections that overwhelmingly endorsed Petro Poroshenko as the country’s next leader. Nevertheless, fighting in eastern Ukraine continues as the Ukrainian military seeks to oust the pro-Russian separatists who established self-declared “independent” states in a number of cities. Few doubt that these separatists rely on Russia for guidance and support, so it is probably Vladimir Putin who will decide if this fighting keeps going. Meanwhile, Jewish communities in the region share the same anxieties and apprehensions as their fellow citizens. A few families have reacted to the unrest by immigrating to Israel; some others have relocated to other parts of Ukraine until the situation improves.

AJC Staff Expert Relocating to Ukraine: Sam Kliger will serve as the global advocacy organization’s representative to the Ukrainian Jewish community, government and civil society. Click here for more information.

And yet Jews in most of Ukraine are heartened by the election results and even optimistic about the country’s future. This may seem something of a surprise, since only a few months ago we were told that anti-Semitic ultranationalists from the Svoboda Party and the Right Sector had hijacked the Maidan demonstrations and would be part of the new interim government, and Kiev’s Jews witnessed several violent incidents of anti-Semitism and calls reverberated through the Jewish world for increased security.

In late April I traveled to Ukraine in my role as an OSCE special envoy, and I met with Jewish leaders, the head of the Security Service, the Foreign Minister and other government officials. By all accounts those anti-Semitic attacks, a relative rarity in Ukraine, were carried out by provocateurs acting on behalf of the former Yanukovych government or other pro-Russian elements. Russian media added to the confusion with its own distorted accounts of the new leadership in Kiev and the supposed fear engulfing Ukrainian Jews. One news account depicted the Jews of the recently-annexed Crimea celebrating Passover “for the first time in freedom.” This was an outright lie: they had been celebrating the holiday each year since Ukraine gained its independence two decades ago.

The Svoboda Party came to prominence with a strong showing in parliamentary elections two years ago. Its primary support comes from western Ukraine, where its nationalist—and sometimes anti-Semitic—messages resonate most strongly. Now, though, party leaders are very careful not to say anything anti-Semitic, and Jewish leaders differ among themselves over whether the solidary struggles of the Maidan had genuinely changed their views, or if they were only being careful, aware of the glare of international media coverage. 

But the presidential election may make this debate moot. The leaders of both Svoboda and the Right Sector were on the ballot, but together they received barely two percent of the vote. With such a showing they are unlikely to retain any seats when a new parliament is elected later this year.

Whatever the source of recent anti-Semitic incidents, Ukraine’s Jewish community institutions are certainly in need of increased protection. Emergency funds have been used for the installation of security cameras and, in some cases, private security patrols. Little help can be expected from state authorities due to the poor economic conditions and a police force riddled with corruption and low morale. While synagogues and community buildings in major cities have benefited from private contributions, a more comprehensive review of overall security needs is long overdue.

Ukraine’s Holocaust-era history is a source of contention. Well over one-and-a-half million Jews in Ukraine perished during the Holocaust, shot to death and buried in mass graves not far from their homes. Local Ukrainians frequently collaborated in those murders, and much of that history is still untold. Several small institutes labor to conduct Holocaust research and provide training for teachers, with only limited government support. But this too may be changing. Professor Anatoly Podolsky, director of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies in Kiev and a participant in the Maidan demonstrations, noted that in the past his university colleagues would refer to the Holocaust in Ukraine as “your history”—as though it is a subject of concern only for Jews. Now, he says, people are beginning to recognize that this is a multi-ethnic country, and that means accepting the fact that the Holocaust is part of the collective Ukrainian history. Hence the optimism, despite the enormous challenges Ukraine still faces. 

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Prime Minister of Ukraine, appeared via video at the AJC Global Forum 2014. Click here to hear his speech to AJC.

Date: 6/2/2014