I strongly encourage you to read this report, below, by Cantor Vicky Glikin, of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.
Cantor Glikin recently returned from a trip to her native Ukraine, where the political/military upheaval has been been of special concern to the international Jewish community, particularly amidst reports of anti-Semitism against the Ukrainian Jewish population. While it is imperative that we take such reports with the utmost seriousness, it is also critical to separate fear from fact – and not to jump to conclusions about the truth behind these reports. In this regard, eye-witnesses testimonies from knowledgeable insiders such as Cantor Glikin are profoundly important.
Having just finished observing Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), I am truly inspired by her words, which ultimately counsel hope over fear and engagement over isolation:
My family immigrated to the United States from Kiev, Ukraine when I was 13 years old. While today I am far more American than Ukrainian, I have kept close ties to Kiev, visiting my friends and family, including my grandmother and father, every couple of years. My most recent trip was just a couple of weeks ago, in early April to visit my 98-year old grandmother who lives within a mile of Maidan, Kiev’s central square and the heart of the civil unrest over the past six months.
As could have been expected, this trip turned out to be very different from all of my previous trips. This was not only because I found the center of Kiev looking like a war zone with torn up cobblestones, blackened buildings, and barricades, but more importantly because this trip was filled with unprecedented conversations. I spoke much less and listened a lot more as the typical talk of our personal well-being was replaced by discussions of Ukrainian politics, stories of horrors and scares experienced over the past six months, and fears for what’s ahead. And, there were also stories of people coming together, of admirable heroism, of new-found patriotism, and of hope.
My family members in Ukraine are Jewish, as are many of my friends. Whenever I visit, I always inquire whether they are concerned about anti-Semitism. The answer over the past two decades has been a persistent “no,” but this time around I asked the question with more caution since the current unrest has the potential to bring out the worst in people and since the media has been filled with fearful reports concerning anti-Semitism in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, as our conversations unfolded it became clear that the general view among Ukrainian Jews is that anti-Semitism is not a concern. Further still, the legacy of historic anti-Semitism in Ukraine is simply not relevant at this juncture in the country’s development. Inasmuch as concentrating on issues of anti-Semitism takes attention away from the other issues associated with the crisis in Ukraine, bringing too much attention to the “Jewish Question” might actually be harmful to Ukrainian Jews.
Having followed the events of the past six months very carefully and having just experienced first-hand the mood of the Ukrainians, it is clear that the majority of the Ukrainian population wants to maintain its independence as a sovereign country. They want to have less corruption in their government. They want closer ties to Europe and a chance at a better life. As I was walking through Maidan, near the flowers and candles marking the places where people had been murdered, I saw a handwritten note that said: “Kind people, I thank you for the [brighter] future for my child!”
Since the fall of the corrupt Yanukovich government, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has time and again tried to mischaracterize the opposition movement and Ukraine’s current government as “fascist,” “intolerant of minorities,” and “anti-Semitic.” In fact, the very pretext for Putin’s unlawful occupation and annexation of Crimea was to “protect the Russian citizens living in Crimea from the fascist Ukrainian regime.” Putin’s claims are self-serving and could not be further from the truth. The opposition is not composed of extremists. Rather, the opposition is composed primarily of middle-class, well-educated citizens who stood up on Maidan and continue standing up for their human Maidan is patriotic – its main aim is to maintain Ukraine’s right for self- determination as an independent country. At the center of Maidan, I saw the following quote laid out on the ground with bricks, written in Russian and decorated with a heart and flowers: “Patriotism is the main idea of Maidan. Stop the propaganda. There’s no fascism here.”
The most hardcore of the opposition members are not leaving Maidan until after the elections, which are scheduled for May 25 and which most Ukrainians fear may be disrupted by Putin. “We love Russians. We despise Putin” stated one of the oversized fliers dominating the center of Maidan, where the opposition’s tents and barricades still remain assembled. Nearby is a flier of a Time Magazine cover featuring the face of Putin (or, as everyone in Ukraine is calling him these days,“Putler”), made to look as Hitler with the latter’s foreboding mustache and hairdo.
In response to the claims of rising anti-Semitism, the President of the all-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, Vadim Rabinovich, stated in mid-March that there have been no anti- Semitic acts on Ukrainian territory and that any reports of anti-Semitism are provocations. Kiev’s Chief Rabbi Moshe-Reuven Asman noted that not only are the Jews not fleeing Ukraine, but they are volunteering to fight in the Ukrainian army. “Ukraine is currently unified. The threat to Ukraine has united the Ukrainians and the non-Ukrainians.”
In response to the anti-Semitic fliers that were passed out during Passover in Donetsk, a town in Eastern Ukraine, the Chief Rabbi of Donetsk Pinchas Vishedsky stated: “”the citizens of Donetsk are tolerant people; we live side-by-side with them, practically without conflict. What happened certainly smells of a provocation. It remains an open question as to who is behind this. But, since this is only a provocation, it should garner a respective reaction: namely, to close this topic and to put a period at its end.”
The members of the Jewish community with whom I interacted while in Kiev have been and continue to be involved in the opposition efforts and support the current transitional Ukrainian government. During the stand-off between the opposition and then-President Victor Yanukovich, all of the members of the opposition working on Maidan were divided into “One Hundreds.” One of these was a “Jewish One Hundred,” comprised of Jews and non-Jews and led by the members of the Jewish community.
The Ukrainian Jewish community was also involved in the provision of supplies to Maidan, including food, medicine, and clothes, as well as the transfer of 10 heavily-wounded Ukrainians (only one of them Jewish) for treatment in Israel. Jews are very well represented in the transitional government of Ukraine. Rabbis and Jewish community leaders have addressed Maidan from the stage located in the square’s center. They are also currently involved in the creation of policies meant to ensure that there will be no anti-Semitism in the new government and in modern independent Ukraine.
Given the unpredictable nature of the current situation, the Jewish community is being very vigilant and a Jewish self-defense unit is currently in formation. However, like their Ukrainian counterparts, the members of the Jewish community are not afraid of their countrymen. In fact, the prevalent view among the Ukrainian Jewish community is that their well being is directly aligned with that of the broader Ukrainian population.
Just like the rest of Ukrainian residents, the Jewish community is concerned about provocations staged or sponsored by the Putin government and its agents, which are methodically chipping away at Ukraine’s independence. They are concerned about the empty treasury coffers, which have been plundered by years of corruption and the currently dilatory financial assistance from the West. They are threatened by the amassing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s Eastern border, Putin’s incessant bullying, and the realization that they relinquished their nuclear weapons and ceased investing in the Ukrainian army in exchange for empty promises of security guarantees.
The situation is very serious, indeed, not only for Ukraine and its Jews, but for the broader world as well. Let us pray that the world community will be able to look back at this time in history with pride, knowing that it did everything in its power to protect democracy and to curtail ruthless attempts to attain power, influence, and domination at the cost of others’ self-determination.