Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Travel To Jewish Population Centers In Ukraine

April, May, 1996 (continued)

The officials said that Ukraine is home to 44 different nationality groups, of whom Jews are the most active. They hope that the 52 Jewish organizations in Kiev alone will establish relationships with foreign Jewish organizations. They noted that many Israeli leaders were of Ukrainian origin, and that both Zionism and hasidism had strong roots in Ukraine. Many Ukrainians, they said, had helped Jews during World War II; the Ukrainian government was now attempting to find and honor these individuals. Jews have made great contributions to Ukrainian culture.

The Kiev municipality is trying to assist International Solomon University because it is a pluralistic institution, i.e., it accepts non-Jewish students.36 The municipality believes that a strong positive Jewish identity is very helpful to Jews in Ukraine, especially to Jewish children. The two officials acknowledged that Ukraine has no laws regarding the rights of national minorities, but said that such laws will be formulated in the future. It is the intention of the Ukrainian government to deal with ethnic problems proactively, not reactively.

The Ukrainian government, said the two men, believes that Jews must have the right to emigrate if they so desire. However, the government believes that the Jewish population enriches Ukraine and they hope that Jews will remain.

The two officials stated that the municipality is very interested in increasing contacts between Kiev and Chicago in the context of the sister-city agreement, both between Ukrainians in the two cities and between the Jewish populations of Kiev and Chicago. They are aware that many individuals of Ukrainian ancestry live in Chicago. It is the responsibility of their departments to deal with such international programs.

In response to a question, Mr. Hazhaman said that Ukrainian Communists are strongest in the three eastern Ukrainian industrial centers of Lugansk, Donetsk, and Zaporozhe. Unlike Russian Communists in Ukraine, he continued, Ukrainian Communists believe that Ukraine should remain a separate, independent country; if Ukraine were to be reunited with Russia, Ukrainian Communists would fall under Russian Communist domination.

32. Jeffrey Weill and I met with Eric Rubin, a First Secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. Mr. Rubin, who has been in contact with many Ukrainian Jewish leaders throughout his tenure in Kiev, is returning to a position in the U.S. Department of State this summer. Mr. Rubin had just returned to Kiev from a trip to Poland which, he said, was much more advanced than Ukraine, both economically and socially.

In discussing Ukrainian Jewry, Mr. Rubin said that Jewish life in Ukraine is very fragmented. The Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine (known as the Va’ad), led by Yosif Zissels, is the most effective and most respected national Jewish organization. It pursues a broad service-delivery agenda throughout the country. Mr. Zissels is a Zionist and is very idealistic. A “competitor” to the Va’ad is the Ukrainian Jewish Council, an old-guard institution with roots in the Soviet period. Many of its leaders collaborated with the Soviet regime and made various compromises. Notwithstanding its history and its continuing “Soviet” style of operations, it retains a certain official status from the previous era. Its president is Ilya Levitas, and its vice-president is Arkady Monastirsky.37 Mr. Monastirsky, who is considerably younger than Mr. Levitas, communicates quietly with Yosif Zissels on several issues. Also strongly identified with this group is Aleksandr Shlaen, who has done much to preserve Babi Yar.

Mr. Rubin said that the Joint Distribution Committee works with both organizations as does Rabbi Bleich, although Rabbi Bleich’s relations with the Levitas group are strained. Mr. Rubin suggested that the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago also should work with both groups as it pursues its sister-city relationship. He believes that American Jewry should offer more assistance to Jews in Ukraine, especially in smaller cities. Mr. Rubin said that international Jewish organizations working in Ukraine, especially JDC, spend their money wisely, and that [more intensive] involvement by American Jews will ensure that responsible allocation of resources will continue. In a later comment, Mr. Rubin said that some elderly Jews in Ukraine would starve to death without the assistance of JDC.

Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich is highly respected throughout Ukraine. Mr. Rubin said that Rabbi Bleich is effective in his position and is “ecumenical” in his approach to various Jewish organizations.

According to Mr. Rubin, the Ukrainian government supports the concept of a chief rabbinate for all Ukraine. It desires a chief rabbi and one chief rabbi only. Referring to the conflict between Rabbi Bleich and the Chabad movement in Kiev, Mr. Rubin said that Chabad was mainly to blame.38

Mr. Rubin continued that Jews in Ukraine are very assimilated and that some of them will never relate well to hasidic rabbis. He noted that only one modern Orthodox rabbi (Rabbi Shlomo Assraf, an Israeli, in Kharkov) currently works in Ukraine, and that no Reform or Conservative rabbi is stationed anywhere in the country. He believes that Judaism would be more attractive and accessible if native-born rabbis representing the more liberal branches of Judaism were active. The reality that all serving rabbis are foreigners is an additional grievance of Ukrainian nationalists.

Mr. Rubin stated that the U.S. Embassy, JDC, and Rabbi Bleich were all helping to “rebuild the Jewish community” for those Jews who stay in Ukraine, but that Israel was encouraging aliyah and Zionism. He seemed critical of the Israeli emphasis on aliyah. Mr. Rubin observed that many emerging Jewish leaders emigrate; such departures, he said, create a very high turnover in Jewish organizational leadership that is detrimental to community-building.

Reclamation of Jewish communal property confiscated by the Soviet regime remained a major problem, commented Mr. Rubin. He said that no national laws compelled the Ukrainian government to return communal property to the Jewish community; thus, claims for buildings must be settled with local authorities. Obviously, officials in different cities responded differently to petitions by local Jews. In principle, most municipalities agree to return property, but practical and local political issues often intervene to prevent or inhibit restoration of the buildings in question. Mr. Rubin noted that such problems are often exacerbated by Jewish communal infighting, i.e., competing claims by different Jewish groups, over the property.

Regarding antisemitism in Ukraine, Mr. Rubin said that the Zhirinovsky phenomenon was entirely absent in Ukraine. Very little organized antisemitism existed, except in western Ukraine and within the UNA-UNSO movement wherever it was active. Antisemitism was much worse in Russia, the Baltic states, Poland, and Hungary than in Ukraine. Many people accuse Ukrainians of collaborating en masse with Nazi SS troops in slaughtering Jews during World War II, Mr. Rubin asserted, but nearly all such collaborators came from one particular area of Ukraine, i.e., Galicia.39 Very few Ukrainians from Kiev, Odessa, eastern Ukraine, or other parts of the country helped the Nazis, he said.

Western Ukraine is almost a different country, said Mr. Rubin, noting the complex history of the area.40 Western Ukrainian oblasts have been part of Ukraine for only 50 years. In the areas under Austro-Hungarian or Polish control, antisemitism was endemic and still has resonance today. The russification of Jews in this region is also threatening to Ukrainian nationalists, who perceive Russians as the greatest contemporary enemy.

Mr. Rubin observed that Jews constitute a disproportionately large segment of the Ukrainian mafiosi, especially in Odessa and Kiev. After having embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars, Yefim Zviagilsky, the former first deputy prime minister, is now living in Israel. Semyon Yufa, formerly prominent in Kiev organized crime, also escaped to Israel. Although these individuals received considerable negative press, media coverage was generally free of antisemitic bias.

Mr. Rubin acknowledged difficulty in assessing the number of Jews living in Ukraine. Official and semi-official statistics indicate a Jewish population of between 400,000 and 500,000. However, if the criterion is the method used for determining aliyah eligibility under the Israeli Law of Return, i.e., at least one Jewish grandparent, perhaps one million Jews live in Ukraine. However, in Kiev, probably only 50 percent of the Jews actually identify as Jews, and assimilation and russification are high in other large cities as well.41 Many Jews changed their names in efforts to avoid identification as Jews. Jews in western Ukraine are the least assimilated because they have been under Soviet control only since World War II.

36. The nature of municipal assistance was not clear.
37.  The writer noted the following in another report: Because Mr. Monastirsky is one of very few Ukrainian Jews who speak English well, he is sometimes asked to speak to groups of visiting American Jews, thus gaining for his organization more attention than may be justified by its own accomplishments or its influence among Ukrainian Jews. Mr. Zissels does not speak any foreign language very well.
38.  Until recently, Chabad Rabbi Dov Karasik also referred to himself as Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine. His current business card, obtained during the visit to the Simcha preschool (see #21 in text above), identifies him as “Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine.” Rabbi Moshe Osman, an Israeli and a newcomer to Kiev, is now regarded as the effective director of Chabad operations in Ukraine.
39.  Galicia is often defined as territory within Lvov (Lviv), Ternopol (Ternopil), and Ivano-Frankovsk (Ivano-Frankivsk) oblasts.
40. The following oblasts are in Western Ukraine: Lvov; Ternopol; Ivano-Frankovsk; Volin or Volhynia (Volyn); Rovno (Rivno); Zakarpatia or Transcarpathia (Zakarpattya); and Chernovtsy (Chernovitsi). These regions were part of Austria-Hungary until 1918, and during the interwar period were within Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Romania
41. Mr. Rubin mentioned Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, and Donetsk as other large Ukrainian cities in which Jews are highly assimilated.

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