KIEV — In the run-up to Ukraine’s presidential re-vote, opposition candidate Viktor Yuschenko is taking steps to dispel fears among some Jews stemming from his political ties with Ukrainian nationalist groups.
On December 9, Yuschenko made a public appearance in Kiev’s Central Synagogue to light Hanukkah candles. Some 400 Jews packed the shul, known here as Brodsky Synagogue, welcoming Yuschenko and his wife, Katerina, along with two of the couple’s five children, with an ovation.
In an interview that evening, Yuschenko — who has been suffering from a mystery ailment that reports now indicate was the result of a deliberate poisoning — said that should he win the upcoming election, slated for December 26, he will make relations with Israel a priority.
“Under my presidency, the relations between Ukraine and the State of Israel will take a turn for the better,” Yuschenko said.
Responding to a question from a reporter about the prospects of the restitution of former Jewish communal property — one of the most pressing issues for Ukraine’s Jewish community — Yuschenko said he will be guided by justice in dealing with the issue. “Justice should be the dominant question in the issue of restitution of Jewish property,” he said. “The property must be returned to the owner.’’
Yuschenko’s shul visit marked the rare appearance of a top Ukrainian political leader at a synagogue ceremony.
Some leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish community, who had previously preferred not to publicize their political preferences during the election standoff that followed the contested November 21 presidential runoff, praised Yuschenko for his public show of support to the community.
“This visit demonstrated Yuschenko’s human and political position and his respect toward the Jewish community,” said Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the umbrella United Jewish Community of Ukraine.
Yuschenko is widely expected to win in the re-vote later this month, in which he is slated to again face Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who is supported by the central authorities in this nation of 48 million.
Earlier this month, Ukraine’s Supreme Court invalidated the results of the November 21 runoff — in which Yuschenko finished second to Yanukovich — because of allegations of widespread electoral fraud.
Many Jewish voters had said they supported Yanukovich because they feared the antisemitism associated with some nationalist groups that are members of Yuschenko’s coalition. But Yuschenko’s Hanukkah appearance is likely to allay some of these concerns and could influence the Jewish vote in the upcoming election, some communal insiders believe.
Jews who greeted Yuschenko in the shul last week were not shy about whom they supported. Many wore orange ribbons and scarves — orange being the symbol of Yuschenko’s campaign — in addition to badges reading, “Yes, Yuschenko!”
For his part, Yuschenko sported a yarmulke, which Jewish officials described as a first among top Ukrainian political leaders.
The Jewish community of Kiev said that it sent Hanukkah invitations to both presidential contenders but only Yuschenko responded. Community leaders said they did not know if Yanukovich intended to visit the synagogue during the holiday.