Elation in Washington over Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution gave way to red faces this week after the White House was forced to distance itself from a controversial Ukrainian American polemicist who was part of the American delegation to the inauguration of Ukraine’s new president, Viktor Yushchenko.
The disputed envoy, Myron Kuropas, a longtime GOP activist from Illinois, has accused Jewish organizations repeatedly of exploiting the Holocaust and of waging a campaign of defamation against Ukrainians. He traveled to Kiev last month on a State Department plane as part of an official American delegation to the January 23 inauguration.
The White House now says it regrets the decision to tap Kuropas, 72, an adjunct professor of education at Northern Illinois University and a columnist in the New Jersey-based Ukrainian Weekly. “We were not aware of his previous statements,” White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said. “If we were aware of such comments beforehand, we would not have invited Kuropas to be a member of the delegation.”
In articles and speeches during the last two decades, Kuropas repeatedly has accused Jewish organizations of tarring Ukrainians in their pursuit of Nazi war-crimes investigations. A frequent critic of the “Holocaust industry,” he has suggested at times that Jews played an “inordinate role” in the rise of Soviet communism, and in a 1998 speech he declared that “the crimes of their people cannot be explained away easily.”
In a statement responding to last week’s furor, Kuropas denied that he is an antisemite or “Holocaust denier.” But he defended his past statements in a telephone interview, saying his words had been taken out of context. “There’s nothing I wrote that’s in any way incorrect,” he told the Forward. “It may be inflammatory to certain people.”
Democrats were jumping on his inclusion in the delegation and demanding stronger action. Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on February 1, asking her to investigate the matter and calling Kuropas’s “selection to help represent our nation … particularly unfortunate as the world is recognizing the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.”
“I want to know, who put him on that plane?” Emanuel told the Forward. “The White House, the State Department, the speaker [of the House, Dennis Hastert], everybody denies any knowledge, any role. The White House should put out a statement. Taxpayer dollars were being used to fund a professor with shady ideas.”
Kuropas lives in Hastert’s Illinois district and has given $1,500 to Hastert, whose spokesman said the Republican lawmaker never had heard of Kuropas.
Kuropas told the Forward he did not know who recommended him for the delegation, which he said was assembled on short notice.
Kuropas has been a vocal critic of the Office of Special Investigations, the Justice Department unit that prosecutes Nazi war criminals. In his Ukrainian Weekly columns, he advocated for the exoneration of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American auto worker deported in 1986 to Israel, where he was tried and convicted of war crimes but later set free by Israel’s supreme court.
Emanuel and Rep. Henry Waxman of California urged Northern Illinois University in a letter to “re-evaluate” its relationship with Kuropas. The university declined to take action, concluding his remarks had no bearing on his duties.
Republicans have been embarrassed in the past because of links to right-wing ethnic leaders, especially from East European émigré communities. In 1988, then-vice president George H. W. Bush lost six members of his presidential campaign’s ethnic outreach panel after press disclosures of their involvement in war-era pro-Nazi groups in their native countries. “These individuals came out of the National Republican Heritage Groups Nationalities Council,” said Larry Cohler Esses, the reporter who broke the story. “That was the ethnic auxiliary that the Republican Party formed in the Eisenhower era to bring in veterans of fascist militias and movements under the guise of anti-communism and thereby chip away at the Democrats’ overwhelming advantage with ethnic groups.”
Kuropas, who was born in America, participated in a Jewish-Ukrainian dialogue sponsored by the Chicago region of the American Jewish Committee, and was honored in 1979 for “helping to bring these groups together for the betterment of all mankind.” But he said the dialogue soured when he and the Jewish leaders disagreed about Demjanjuk.
While Kuropas told the Forward that Jews are “not responsible for Bolshevism,” his writings have highlighted Jewish participation in the rise of Soviet communism in the context of Stalin’s crimes against Ukraine. In a 1996 column on the Stalin-era famine that killed 24 million in Ukraine, he wrote, “The inordinate role played by Jews in bringing Bolshevism to power is certainly a topic worthy of further exploration.”
“Let the Jews go on the defensive for a change,” he said in a 1998 speech blasting Jewish defense agencies as a “Jewish nomenklatura,” using the Russian word for the Soviet hierarchy, according to a report in The Ukrainian News, a Canadian publication. “The crimes of their people cannot be explained away easily.”
In a statement after the furor erupted last week, Kuropas wrote: “I am not a Holocaust denier. I am not an antisemite. I have responded, however, to certain behaviors and comments of certain Jews, especially those who seem to take pleasure in defaming the Ukrainian people. I realize that some of my views are not always in the mainstream but I believe I have the right to exercise my First Amendment rights and fairly comment on issues that are of significance in our community.”
Michael Kotzin, assistant executive vice president of Chicago’s Jewish United Fund, said he first had contact with Kuropas 20 years ago when Kotzin worked at the Anti-Defamation League. “In the post-Holocaust Soviet era, his attempts to stand up for the Ukrainian cause resonated with anti-Jewish hostility in a way that separated him from many of the Ukrainian leaders in Chicago in an ugly way,” Kotzin said. “Apparently those attitudes are still with him.”
Maynard Wishner, a longtime Jewish communal leader who participated in the AJCommittee’s Jewish-Ukrainian dialogue, said that Kuropas had not seemed interested in the purposes of the dialogue, which Wishner described as “to heal, to look forward rather than back.”
“He was defending Ukrainians from the charge of antisemitism, and almost taking the next step and defending antisemitism,” Wishner said.
Kuropas has a long history as an adviser to Republicans. He was a special assistant for ethnic affairs in the Gerald Ford administration, according to a statement he supplied to the Forward. DeKalb County, Ill.’s Midweek News reported that Kuropas served on President Reagan’s transition team. It also noted that Kuropas had worked as a legislative assistant for Senator Robert Dole of Kansas. According to the Los Angeles Times, Kuropas worked on the 1992 presidential campaign of conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan, serving as co-chairman of the National Ukrainians for Buchanan Committee, and once introduced Buchanan by saying, “You reflect our values, you echo our beliefs.”