The past year 2020 was eventful for the Jewish community of Ukraine, but 2021 is expected to be even more eventful. At the end of September, Ukraine will become the center for the world's attention, when world leaders will come to Kyiv to honor the memory of the victims of the Babyn Yar mass shootings. It will be 80 years since the beginning of the mass executions that took the lives of more than 100,000 people, most of whom were Jews, this year.
The third Kyiv International Jewish Forum is also expected to be held this year.
The first news should come from Tel Aviv University, where, at the initiative of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, a research project has been launched to study the history of the Ukrainian Jewish community.
What will the year that has started bring to the Jews of Ukraine and what will the past year be remembered for? – An interview with BORIS LOZHKIN, President of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, Vice President of the European and World Jewish Congresses.
– Mr. Lozhkin, there are different assessments of how friendly the life of Jews in Ukraine is today – from “very good” to “unbearable”. In your opinion, how strong is anti-Semitism in current Ukraine?
– There is a simple explanation for the difference in ratings. I will give you two polar opposite examples. On the one hand, everything is in order with our tolerance according to the statistics. At the Kyiv Jewish Forum in September, US Special Envoy to monitor and combat Anti-Semitism Elan Carr cited research data from the reputed international company Pew Research – 83% of the population in Ukraine view Jews favorably. This is the highest rate in the world. I personally also believe that there is practically no anti-Semitism here.
But here's another example – destruction of the Hanukkah Menorah on Kontraktova Square in Kyiv on the very first day of Hanukkah. Deliberate open provocation. The vandal was not even hiding his face, recording an openly anti-Semitic speech on camera, and then also posted this video on the social network – clear evidence of the crime.
Meeting with Joe Biden
Is this a manifestation of anti-Semitism? Definitely. But how did the law enforcement authorities qualify this? As hooliganism. Why? Because they work within the framework of the existing laws. By the way, I do not have any claims to the Ministry of Internal Affairs – JCU and the Ministry signed an agreement back in 2018 on joint work to monitor and suppress such actions, and since then we have been completely happy with their work.
The issue is in definition of the manifestation of anti-Semitism. Since 2016, a common legal definition of anti-Semitism, developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), has been in effect in the world. The number of countries that have adopted this definition has been constantly growing. In October, it was adopted in Albania; in November, even the Global Imams Council, the most reputed association of Muslim leaders, joined. Ukraine has not become a member of the IHRA yet. Had this definition been adopted, the statistics in Ukraine could have been different. I don't think the digits would have changed radically, but all the facts, would have been at least recorded and prosecuted according to the internationally recognized procedure, and we would have eliminated any possible dubious interpretations.
Therefore, participation in international organizations is important, if we want (and we do want) to be a part of the civilized world. I hope that Ukraine will nevertheless join the IHRA in the near future.
– Do you think it can happen this year, given that heads of state from all over the world, including all Jewish leaders, will come to us?
– It would be logical for Ukraine to take this step, especially in the context of the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy. We have already made significant progress towards acknowledging the mistakes of the past. The signing of a memorandum between the Ukrainian government and the Memorial Center is, in my opinion, one of the most serious events of the past year. It took a long time for Ukraine, and finally such a memorial will appear on the site of the most massive Holocaust executions. Moreover, this will not be just a memorial; this complex should become something like the Israeli Yad Vashem – an educational and research center for studying the history of the tragedy itself. The more we learn and speak about it, the less are the chances for a repetition of such monstrous tragedies.
Speaking at the Kyiv Jewish Forum, 2019
By the way, in November, the Memorial Center, together with Yad Vashem, already compiled the most complete list of Babyn Yar victims to date. It will certainly be replenished, but what has been done is already a lot. The head of the Supervisory Board of the Memorial Center Natan Sharansky said that the main goal of the entire project is to identify absolutely all the victims of Babyn Yar by name. This is the only way we can truly honor their memory. No matter how global the tragedy is, the memory of it is woven from the specific names.
Unfortunately, Jews up to date do not have the opportunity to remember the victims according to the Jewish traditions by reading memorial prayers in Babyn Yar. Therefore, a project to build a memorial synagogue is now being considered. However, it is necessary to take into account the interests of all confessions and the historical components here, so that the synagogue becomes a symbol of unity, and not another cause for disputes.
– Do you think that Ukrainians should repent?
– No. Under no consideration! I am convinced that only a direct perpetrator can repent, and it is wrong and unfair to label the whole nation as guilty. Here I completely agree with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, an Auschwitz and Buchenwald survivor. He said that he was against collective responsibility, since he himself belonged to the people with the stigma of collective guilt. In fact, it is from such collective accusations that xenophobia is born in all forms. And anti-Semitism, in my opinion, is the same in nature.
This is not about repentance, as I have already mentioned. It is enough to simply admit that such facts existed. After all, Jews are not saints either, and the Jews had sufficient number of “their own villains,” as Ze’ev Jabotinsky said. Among those who carried out the Holodomor and among the founders of the Gulag were Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Latvians and others. A vicious person has no nationality; it is enough to simply admit that there were such people in Ukraine. In my opinion, truth is the basis of a trusting and strong relationship. Forgiveness comes through acknowledgment. It is unreasonable and harmful to deny the obvious – we only harm ourselves in doing so. Harm ourselves and damage reputation of Ukraine in the eyes of the world.
– Speaking about the world and Ukraine. In 2019, the Kyiv Jewish Forum was attended by about 500 guests, the second forum gathered 83 thousand people online. Did you expect such popularity? Will there be a forum held this year?
Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center Project
– It is not only the number of participants that is growing, but also the level of representation. The second forum was attended already by three presidents, the prime minister of Israel, 45 speakers with world-famous names. As for the audience – here, of course, paradoxically, the coronavirus helped us. We held the second forum online, and, you are right, 83 thousand people followed the broadcasts. If all the spectators of the forum were physically brought together, they would have completely filled the Stade de France, and even then not all would have fit. Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex in Kyiv would not have been able to accept so many people.
Yes, the forum’s reputation has been growing with every year, and this is understandable. Here, by the way, the representation of Ukraine in international organizations also helps, but not only that. First, we initially conceived the forum as an international discussion platform for discussing the most pressing issues of the Jewish world. I emphasize – the world, since it is senseless and unreasonable to consider Ukraine in isolation from the rest of the Jewish community, especially when you consider that it is in Ukraine that the roots of many modern Jews are located. This is exactly the second thing.
These facts are widely known, but it would be useful to remind them again. Until 1900, a quarter of the entire Jewish population lived on the territory of current Ukraine; we had the largest Jewish community. Hasidism originated in Ukraine; a lot of Jewish geniuses in science, literature, art have Ukrainian roots. Ukrainian Jews have played, perhaps, a decisive role in the emergence of Israel. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whom I have already mentioned, was the ideologist of the formation of an independent Jewish state. Four prime ministers, two presidents of Israel had Ukrainian roots. Or, for example, Israel Belkind, the head of the youth Jewish organization Bilu was from Kharkiv. He was the first to arrive in Eretz Yisrael in 1882, and the First Aliyah actually began with him. And there are a lot of such examples.
Therefore, the interest of Jews in Ukraine is not something supernova. And I am happy that we are gradually reviving both the community in Ukraine and its role in the Jewish world.
The third forum will definitely take place. Depending on the situation with the coronavirus, it will later become clear, whether it will be again held online, or whether it will be possible to combine the live and online format. By the way, taking this opportunity, once again I would like to thank our partners – the Jerusalem Post, together with which we organized the second forum and, I hope, our cooperation will continue.
We have a lot to learn from others, but we ourselves can already share our own experience.
– For example, the project “The Righteous People of My City”?
– Yes, that's right. I have already represented it at the World Jewish Congress, and our experience has been received with enthusiasm by many countries. In the near future, our initiative may become international. I would like to remind you that as part of this project in different regions of Ukraine, in specific cities and villages, streets, squares, gardens are named after the Righteous Among the Nations; plaques are installed describing the heroic deeds of specific people. At schools, memory lessons are held, during which they study the history of the Holocaust and the history of confronting the Holocaust using the examples of their fellow countrymen. This approach – when the tragedy is not spoken about in general, but as a story of the specific person – seems to me the most effective. Why did people risk themselves and their families for the salvation of often unknown to them Jews? And why all the Jews, the whole nation, had been in fact sentenced to death. I would like to believe that after getting acquainted with such stories, there will be much fewer people who want to bring down a Hanukkah Menorah.
About thirty streets have already been named after the Righteous. This is, of course, a drop in the ocean, considering that there are more than 2,600 Ukrainian Righteous officially recognized by Yad Vashem. But the process is going on. Not as actively as we would like, but here, unfortunately, we are dependent on the bureaucracy of local authorities.
Perhaps this year, the renaming will intensify, again in connection with the 80th anniversary of the tragedy in Babyn Yar. Do not forget that in Kyiv there were also many stories of the salvation of Jews. There are nine Righteous People in the family of the Orthodox priest Alexander Glagolev alone. They saved Jews not only at Babyn Yar, but also during the pogroms of 1905.
By the way, this year in Babyn Yar, it is planned to install composite elements on the Alley of the Righteous Among the Nations. This will remind that Babyn Yar is not only a place of executions of innocent people, but also a place of numerous heroic deeds of Ukrainians.
– At the 2020 forum, an announcement was made of a new initiative of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine on research into the history of the Ukrainian Jewish community. Can you explain us the idea in more detail?
– This is another large-scale project that we are implementing together with Tel Aviv University.
With Angela Merkel
For a long time, the perception of Ukraine and the Jews in it in the world has been in the captivity of the established stereotype of a kind of “Soviet monolith”. The Ukrainian Jewish history was not separated from the Soviet one, but we want to highlight only the history of living together of Jews and Ukrainians, their mutual influence on each other. As an example – the origin of Hasidism in Ukraine, which I have already mentioned. Or the first written mention of Kyiv, which was made in Hebrew in the first half of the tenth century. And we are talking here only about the written mention of Kyiv, while the common Ukrainian-Jewish history is even older. Professor Simha Goldin, who will oversee the scientific part of the work in Tel Aviv, claims that the history of the Jewish community in Ukraine was not only original, but it influenced the entire Jewish world.
A group of scientists will study this history, and I am sure that soon we will learn a lot of new and interesting things about our ancestors, Jewish and Ukrainian.
– All this news will need to be actively covered – discoveries of historians, and the forum, and the anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy. Do you think the Jewish media in Ukraine are sufficiently developed today?
– It depends on what you mean by the Jewish media. There are enough media about Jews for Jews, in my opinion. There are not enough mass media outlets that talk about Jews for non-Jews, like your newspaper, for example. After all, the Jewish Observer is a secular publication, not a religious one, therefore, as far as I know, it is popular among non-Jewish circles as well. It makes no sense to tell Jews about anti-Semitism or about the Holocaust: they know about it from childhood. It is necessary to tell everyone else about this. And not through the prism of protecting Jews, but from the point of view of the global threat. Anti-Semitism is just an example of hatred, albeit the most eloquent one. But today there is still a risk that the prefix “anti” can be applied to any other nation or religion – this is dangerous, and this is what the media should be talking about. Both in digital and in classic printed form. Each format has its own audience, and the more people we reach, the more effect we will achieve.
Interviewed by Alexander Evsyukov
Based on materials: Jewish Observer, #01/337 January 2021