As Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky settles into power, hopes are high that he will be able to deliver real reform for the Ukrainian people. During the U.N. General Assembly, we had the opportunity to meet Zelensky and his team, and assess for ourselves his views on issues of concern to the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ). While we remain acutely aware that Ukraine faces many challenges, after hearing Zelensky in New York, as well as participating in May’s inaugural Kyiv Jewish Forum organized by the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, we are optimistic both about the country as a whole and the future of the Ukrainian-Jewish community.
First and foremost, the very fact that Ukraine elected a Jewish president in a land where so much Jewish blood has been shed represents powerful evidence that Ukrainians of all stripes have united around a national identity that transcends faith. Indeed, while the international media has dwelled extensively on Zelensky’s Judaism, in Ukraine itself the new president’s religion was literally a non-factor during the campaign. Ukrainians voted for him primarily because of his promise to clean house with Ukraine’s corrupt establishment. This desire for change—combined with a slick social-media campaign and an everyman persona derived from his comedic past—resulted in an almost 50 percentage point win for him over the widely disliked incumbent, Petro Poroshenko.
In addition to electing a Jewish president, the results of a 2018 PEW poll reveal Ukrainians to be the least anti-Semitic people in Eastern Europe. While only 5 percent of Ukrainian poll respondents stated that they “would not accept Jews as citizens of their country,” in many other countries in the region, approximately one in five adults revealed such deep anti-Semitic views.
A second reason for hope lies in the increasing probability that Ukraine will finally create a fitting memorial to the more than 33,000 Jews slaughtered by the Nazis at Babi Yar on Sept. 29-30, 1941. Under communism, the Jews killed at Babi Yar were simply referred to as “peaceful Soviet citizens,” thereby erasing any Jewish connection to the site; even today only a variety of small memorials stand there. However, that looks set to change.
Thanks to the determination of Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko and others, a private foundation to develop the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) now exists, and they are determined to ensure a world-class memorial be built modeled on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. If their vision comes to fruition, Ukraine will benefit immensely. As ex-Soviet refusenik and former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky points out, BYHMC “will return the historical memory of the Jewish people and also give a chance for Ukraine to join the community of nations with respect.” While the project still faces some resistance from nationalists and others, we believe the momentum to build BYHMC ensures that it will eventually happen.
The increasingly close relationship between Israel and Ukraine also represents a broader cause for optimism, especially after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyanhu’s successful state visit in August. A free-trade agreement between the two countries is already slated to go into effect, and Kyiv also announced that it was planning to open a technology office in Jerusalem. Several bilateral cooperation agreements were signed as well. This developing relationship could serve to further cement the place of the Jewish community within Ukrainian society.
While we are optimistic about the Ukrainian Jewish community’s future, we nevertheless have concerns that we hope President Zelensky addresses. One is to see the Ukrainian government’s Institute of National Memory (UINP) reverse its five-year campaign to whitewash or obfuscate the role of World War II-era nationalist group OUN-UPA and their leaders in collaborating with the Nazis and implementing the Holocaust. While nationalists primarily revere OUN-UPA because they fought the Soviets, along the way these groups killed tens of thousands of Jews and carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that killed between 70,000 and 100,000 Poles.
Fortunately, the new government took a step in the right direction by removing UINP’s previous director. It should now replace him with an internationally respected historian dedicated to the truth, rather than one that promotes a one-sided politicized view of Ukraine’s complicated World War II history. Ukraine should also join the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)—something it has not done to date.
We also call on Ukraine’s new leaders to firmly address any desecrations of Holocaust memorials. Recent years have seen a spate of memorials defiled with Nazi swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans. Too often the cases remained unsolved, with authorities frequently referring to the attacks as “provocations by outside forces” (code words for “the Russians did it”). While it’s not inconceivable that Russia could be responsible for some of these cases, it also creates the impression that authorities view these incidents more as a public-relations problem rather than the profound moral challenges they represent. We are hopeful that the recent arrest of a Kyiv man responsible for three recent Holocaust memorial desecrations means that the Ukrainian authorities are now committed to taking this problem seriously.
Finally, we call on Ukraine’s new leaders to take concrete steps to rein in the nation’s far-right and neo-Nazi groups. Over the last several years, we have seen hate-filled far-right organizations such as C14—whose name comes from David Lane’s 14 words “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”—and the infamous neo-Nazi Azov battalion’s “National Corps” attack vulnerable populations such as Roma. Unfortunately, police rarely prevent these attacks or arrest the perpetrators.
While Ukrainian Jews have not been targeted by these groups, that does not mean it couldn’t happen. And even if Ukrainian Jews never become targets, we should not look the other way or say “it’s not our business” when we see defenseless minorities subjected to vigilante violence.
President Zelensky can take two steps to face down Ukraine’s violent far-right presence. First, he should adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy towards unsanctioned violence and vigilantism. Second, he must ensure that links between the state and far right are broken. As numerous reports have revealed, the Ukrainian government has actually funded extremist groups to teach “national patriotic education,” while C14 cooperates with both the Security Services of Ukraine and municipal police. And the Azov battalion, which uses the Nazi SS Wolfsangel as its insignia, is actually part of Ukraine’s National Guard.
Facing down the far right won’t necessarily be easy. Given their demonstrated willingness to use violence, this sector of society is unlikely to go quietly into the night. Nevertheless, if President Zelensky simply lets the problem fester, then the ultimate reckoning could eventually be even more painful for Ukraine.
Ukraine faces many challenges, and President Zelensky will have to pick and choose his battles, and use his political capital judiciously. However, we are optimistic about Ukraine’s future, and we hope and expect a thriving Ukrainian Jewish community to be part of it.
Daniel Rubin was elected chairman of NCSEJ in December 2015. He has been a member of NCSEJ’s Executive Committee since 2012. Mr. Rubin has been a Managing Partner of LDR Equities, a real estate management and investment firm, since 1996.