Monday, April 22, 2019

The Hope in Ukraine

Over a period of time 600 to 400 years ago, Jews throughout Central Europe fled east escaping wave after wave of expulsions and persecutions. In what was then mostly the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, they settled from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Even there they faced wave after wave of pogroms and persecutions at various times from the resident populations.

A significant cohort of American Jews emigrated to the USA in the late 19th Century from “Russia” in what today are are the Baltic Republics, Poland, Ukraine, Belorussian and Russia proper. They escaped everything from Cossack raiders to simple government persecution. Their families still hold those stories, generations later.

In the 20th Century the persecutions continued, from Stalin’s quasi-traditional Russian persecutions, to the genocide led by Nazi Germany and assisted by local Poles, Ukrainians and others.

After WWII, more waves of emigration followed, mostly to Israel and the USA.

In such a soil with centuries of hate, hostility and division against Jews – what in our century do we find in Ukraine?
With nearly all the votes counted in Ukraine, TV star Volodymyr Zelenskiy is projected to win the country’s presidential runoff vote in a landslide.

The Central Election Commission says Monday that Zelenskiy has won 73% of the vote while the incumbent President Petro Poroshenko got just 24% support with more than 96% of the ballots counted.

Unlike in most of the elections in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history, Zelenskiy appears to have won both in Ukraine’s west and east, areas that have been traditionally polarized. One of the campaign slogans of the popular television comedian who has no previous political experience was to unify Ukraine, which has been torn by bitter debates over its identity as well as the separatist conflict in the east that is fueled by neighboring Russia.
There is a certain detail about Zelenskiy,
Following the victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine’s presidential elections, the country will become the only one in the world besides Israel whose president and prime minister are both Jewish.

When Zelensky is sworn in as president, his prime minister — at least for a while and possibly until the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place sometime later this year — will be Volodymyr Groysman, a Jewish politician who was the mayor of the city of Vinnytsia.
Let’s stop a bit and ponder that.

When Ukraine threw off its Russian puppet government, there was a lot of talk about “fascists in the street.” Since then, there has been a steady drumbeat about “fascists” influencing Ukrainian governmental structures. Part of this is from, to be blunt, a few people who are of the far-right and who used WWII Nazi and Ukrainian Waffen SS symbols. They were visible, but the numbers of true believers are small and their influence less. I'll give them a pass because I understand the complicated history of those units and their place in the minds of many Ukrainian people. For many patriotic Ukrainians who are of a strong anti-Russian bent, that was the easiest reference point they could reach towards in living memory to standing up to the Russians.

There were some who took those on the fringe and tried to use their presence to taint patriotic Ukrainian efforts to find their way outside of Russian influence, and that was a shame. Most who recoiled in disgust meant well, and those I know well (and had some nasty exchanges in twitter years ago on the topic) are in that group who simply could not get past the visuals of a small minority. Others were drawn in by Russian agiprop, and that is unfortunate.

Ukraine has such great potential, but geography and history are not her friends. Yes, she has corruption problems. Yes, she has festering low-intensity conflicts in the east and frozen territorial conflicts. Yes, she is poor and has a slippery grip on the rule of law … but these things take time.

As a nation, Ukraine is striving. She falls back a step now and then … but then pushes herself forward two.

What Ukrainian people as a whole are not are fascists, Nazis, or any of the smears coming from Russia. Fascists or neo-Nazi leaning nations do not elect someone,
“… a pure-blooded Jew with the appearance of a Sholom Aleichem protagonist wins by a landslide in a country where the glorification of Nazi criminals is enacted into law,” wrote Avigdor Eskin, a Russian-Israeli columnist, in an analysis published earlier this month by the Regnum news agency.

The French-Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy also referenced Ukrainian Jew’s bloody history in an interview with Zelensky, the 41-year-old son of scientists who lived near major Soviet army bases in Ukraine, that he published earlier this month in the Le Point weekly.

“His Judaism. It’s extraordinary that the possible future president of the country of the Shoah by Bullets and Babi Yar is a self-affirmed Jew from a family of survivors from Kryvy Rih near Dnipro – the land of pogrom if ever there was one,” Levy wrote. “This postmodern kid, is he new proof that the virus of anti-Semitism has been contained” after the revolution, Levy added.

Not denying his Jewish ancestry, Zelensky declined to explore it at length in the interview, Levy wrote. On this subject, he replied with typical self-deprecating humor, telling Levy: “The fact that I am Jewish barely makes 20 in my long list of faults.”
It appears that it barely make the top-20 by the Ukrainian people either.

Of course, he will face echoes of the well-ingrained Jew hatred in Eastern Europe. Heck, Jews in the USA face it here as well … but it is comes in a small group of marginal individuals – not institutional and widespread.

Everyone should take this moment – while it is here – and reflect on how things can change in just a few generations. There is no guarantee that history will always advance the human condition – many times it goes backwards – but in this case it has, and it has in what would at first glance would be the most unlikely of places.

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