Will Ukraine's Revolution Be Good for Its Jews?

With Foot in Both Camps, Community Looks Beyond Protests

Victory: Ukrainians cheer the news of President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.
Getty Images
Victory: Ukrainians cheer the news of President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.

By David E. Fishman

Published February 26, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

I teach modern Jewish history. Usually, when I mention Ukraine in class, my students’ eyes glaze over. But lately that hasn’t been the case. The eyes of the world have been turned to Kiev, the city that was home to Sholem Aleichem, and the birthplace of Golda Meir. People are now wondering whether this revolution is good or bad for the approximately 100,000 Jews who live in Ukraine.

The political parties that led the protest movement, and that have now assumed power, represent a wide spectrum of Ukrainian society. Anyone who was fed up with the corrupt, kleptocratic and dictatorial regime joined the protests. This included many good guys, and not a few anti-Semites.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the mainstream Fatherland Union party (whose previous leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, was released from prison last Saturday), is one of the good guys. He issued a strong statement against anti-Semitism on World Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, in the midst of the protests.

“The Maidan [the protest movement in Independence Square] does not accept ‘black hundred’ slogans,” he said, referring to the notorious anti-Semitic organization that flourished more than a hundred years ago in Tsarist Russia. “This protest has no place for hatred towards our compatriots based on their ethnic heritage, faith, or home region. We are all part of the Ukrainian nation.” He reiterated an offer to send defense units to protect synagogues during the period of unrest.

Yatsenyuk was himself — during the presidential elections of 2010 — the target of a whispering campaign that he was Jewish, and therefore not a true Ukrainian. As a friend of mine who lives in Kiev observed: “It’s totally false, he isn’t Jewish. He’s just a well-educated person.”

On the other hand, the Svoboda party, which was the junior partner in the protest movement (after Yatsenyuk’s Fatherland and Vitali Klitschko’s Punch party), is overtly anti-Semitic and, many would argue, neo-Nazi. Its party literature blames the Jews for the Bolshevik Revolution and Communist rule in Ukraine, and unabashedly uses the word zhidy (kikes). One of its parliamentarians published a Ukrainian translation of a collection of writings by Joseph Goebbels, and referred to the Holocaust as “one of the brightest pages in European history.”

Optimists like to point out that Svoboda only garnered around 10 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections, so the party is much weaker than analogous right-wing movements in Hungary or France. They also note that the Jews are far from being Svoboda’s top enemy: Russians, foreign immigrants, and homosexuals figure much more prominently in their pantheon of hatred.

Finally, the movement’s leaders were prudent enough to refrain from anti-Semitic pronouncements while speaking from the rostrum of Independence Square. They knew that their country needed Western sympathy and aid, and that railing against zhidy would only hurt their cause. But these are not compelling reasons to feel reassured.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.