The moment went unnoticed by much of the world’s media, but it underlined the long-standing constructive relationship that has existed between Ukraine’s Jews and Ukrainians, an alliance that has only strengthened since last month’s downfall of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
At a recent wreath-laying ceremony in Kiev commemorating the bicentennial of the birth of Ukraine’s bard, Taras Shevchenko, a crowd of several thousand abruptly started cheering, “Long live the Jews! Long live Israel!” The chant was in honour of Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, who the day before had individually blessed ten Ukrainians who were critically wounded by pro-Yanukovych forces during last month’s protest near Kiev’s Maidan before being airlifted to Israel for treatment. Many at the ceremony eagerly hugged the rabbi and shook his hand.
This encounter reflects the paradox facing Ukraine and its new government. One the one hand, the Russian media, aided by some Western observers, launched a campaign accusing Ukraine’s new government of anti-Semitism, fascism and extremism. They note that several ministerial posts are filled by individuals representing nationalist parties.
On the other hand, many in Ukraine, including members of the Jewish community, claim the situation on the ground is quite different. They accuse Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, of instigating a propaganda campaign geared to discredit Ukraine’s Maidan and the principles of democracy, freedom, ethnic and human rights for which millions stood, and for which more than a hundred died.
As leaders of organizations representing Canada’s Ukrainian and Jewish communities, we lend our support to the voices in Ukraine and abroad who say that of the many challenges facing the country, anti-Semitism is not one of them. We agree with Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League in the United States, who wrote in The Jerusalem Post on March 14: “It is as important when we say something is not anti-Semitism as when (we) say it is. That is why it is so important to say that Russia’s claims about anti-Semitism in Ukraine’s revolution are simply not true. They are an effort to delegitimize the actions of the Ukrainian people and to win sympathy for Russia’s defiance of international law.”
Ukrainian Jews struggled and died alongside their fellow Ukrainians on Kiev’s Maidan. Not only did many of Ukraine’s leading Jewish businessmen support the Maidan, but a number of Jews today hold important posts in the new government.
Jews in Ukraine have experienced Anti-semitism, as in other parts of the world. Yet those incidents are significantly fewer than in other European countries. As the ADL noted, “it is fair to say that there was more antisemitism manifest in the worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement than we have seen so far in the revolution taking place in Ukraine.”
The day after the wreath-laying ceremony in Kiev, Shimon Briman of New York’s Russian-language Forum Daily, wrote: “As a Jew and as an Israeli, I am less concerned with the ‘fascism’ of the new Ukrainian authorities but with the fact that if Moscow has ordered there to be antisemitic violence in Ukraine, these might well be organized by the appointed ‘well-wishers.’”
In remembering those who perished on the Maidan, Vyacheslav Likhachev, a leading expert on right wing movements wrote: “The national or religious heritage of those who were killed is, of course, not important in truth…Everything is unimportant…except that they are heroes of Ukraine, who died in its honor while fighting against evil and injustice. But the propaganda makers in the Kremlin’s pay, as well as those who listen to them and who are too rooted in their stereotypes to open their eyes and see the truth for themselves are still continuing their ritual howling about “antisemitic Bandera followers taking power - the descendants of those who killed the Jews at Babiy Yar….”
Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Russians want to build a democratic Ukrainian state whose government respects the dignity of its people. We want to see the multicultural communities in Ukraine continue to live together in harmony while building a better future for their children – much as we enjoy in Canada.
Paul Grod is president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress; Shimon Fogel is chief executive officer at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs