Ilya Bezruchko
Former editor and anchor of Jewish News 1 channel

Jews and Ukrainians. Common history and tragedy

People at the Wailing Wall, the holiest place of prayer for Judaism, in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 2, 2022
People at the Wailing Wall, the holiest place of prayer for Judaism, in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 2, 2022 Reuters/Scanpix/LETA.

Soviet and later Russian propaganda grew a negative public opinion about Ukraine and Ukrainians in Israel for dozens of years. The main goal of this operation was to wipe out all historical facts about common history, heritage, and intentions. This operation included fakes, misleading, and exaggeration.

Why was it so crucial for Russians to pit Ukrainians against Jews throughout history?

For the first time, the French aristocrat and writer Astolf de Custine, who visited the Russian Empire in 1839, called Russia a “prison.” As with every prison, Russian Empire got its own “overseers” and “rioters.” Ukrainians and Jews were the most active, independent, and raised in national culture among other nations of the Russian Empire. That’s why they became “rioters” in the “prison.” Russian authorities realized this very quickly, and due to its policies, both nations were limited in rights, and the government systematically attacked their culture. Even though the early Soviet state claimed its commitment to the equality of all people, in real life, it became an updated version of the Russian Empire with a solid totalitarian and punitive regime. 

However, in that brief period of history, between the collapse of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet state, Ukraine managed to proclaim its independence and create a democratic state. The Ukrainian National Republic became the only state in the world where Yiddish was widely used. Even local currency included inscriptions in Yiddish, as well as regional parliament, had few Jewish parties and the Ministry of Jewish affairs. The Central Council, on the proposal of the General Secretariat of Jewish Affairs, adopted the Law “On National Personal Autonomy,” one of the authors of which was Moisei Zilberfarb, on January 9, 1918.

100 karbovanets UNR (1918) with a denomination in Yiddish

The Law “On National and Personal Autonomy” was one of the most progressive achievements in the field of national minorities in the territory of the former Russian Empire, which guaranteed freedom of national and cultural development to all national minorities of Ukraine. The Ministry of Jewish Affairs acted following the provisions of this Law, was responsible for issues of Jewish culture and education and the organization of elections and public Jewish self-government in local areas, issued circulars and resolutions related to its activities, gave certificates to various persons, and provided statistics.

Despite all of the achievements that the independent Ukrainian state had for its first years of life, Red army squads flooded the young state with blood killing dozens of civilians, started pogroms, and annexed the territory of Ukraine, including it in the Soviet state. And again, Jews and Ukrainians appeared in a new “prison” where they started redeveloping their culture and education based on their historical heritage. By the end of 1933, all Ukrainian and Jewish intentions came to an end due to the ant-religion policy of the Soviet state. Thousands of Ukrainian poets, artists, writers, teachers, as well as Jewish were sent to concentration camps or even shot to death because of their commitment to the national identity. 

Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee

Later after the end of WWII Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which included the most prominent Jewish Soviet artist, poets, and writers, was eliminated by order of Stalin. E.g. Solomon Mikhoels, the famous actor and director of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre, and the JAC chairman, was killed in Minsk by Ministry of State Security agents who staged the murder as a car accident in January 1948. The members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested and charged with disloyalty, bourgeois nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and planning to establish Jewish autonomy in Crimea to serve US interests. In 1951–1953, a group of predominantly Jewish doctors from Moscow was accused of a conspiracy to assassinate Soviet leaders. It was later accompanied by publications of antisemitic characters in the media, which talked about the threats of Zionism and condemned people with Jewish surnames. Following this, many were dismissed from their jobs, arrested, and tortured to produce admissions. 

Despite the anti-Jewish wave that started in the USSR, the minister of foreign affairs of the country, Andrey Gromyko, was one of the most prominent supporters of the creation of the Jewish State in the UN. However, it was not because of his “big love” for Jewish people but because of his intention of Stalin to create one more loyal country in the crucial region for Soviet foreign policy. Lately, USSR made maximum efforts to support all of the Arab states that confronted Israel. It is well described in the articles and books of Ion Mihai Pacepa. He was a Romanian two-star general in the secret police of the Socialist Republic of Romania, who defected to the United States in July 1978. He held the KGB responsible for many terrorist activities, including Islamist terrorism, the provision of PLO terrorist activities, and the creation of the term Palestinian people. 

For the Soviet military not to stand out from the general mass of the Syrian army units and institutions to which they were seconded and, thus, not become a potential target, the commanders of the teams and institutions immediately provided the newcomers with Syrian military uniforms, but without any insignia

Indirectly it is confirmed by the numerous anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist propaganda in the USSR, weapon supply to Arab countries, multiple connections of the PLO leaders to the USSR, and transfer of the soviet/Russian weapons to the numerous terror groups in the West Bank and Gaza strip till now.

At the same time, USSR fought with the Ukrainian dissidents, who served their terms in prisons alongside Jewish refusniks. USSR as a state was very creative in propaganda and misleading for 50 years. USSR covered the number of real Jewish Heroes of the Soviet Union and did not provide war medals to Jews because of their nationality. On the other side, Ukrainians were described in Soviet culture as the most significant war criminals and nazi collaborators, hiding the fact that Ukrainian heroism saved Jews and other victims of nazism and the number of Ukrainians killed during WWII. 

Example of the anti-Jewish and anti-Ukrainian propaganda in the USSR×425.jpg

The roots of this pity and fake narrative are in the Soviet days, as you see. However, modern Russia continued to glorify this narrative and tried to plant it in the world as weeds that should not even grow. But Israeli society became a hothouse of this narrative because of the sensitive question of the Holocaust. 


But where is the truth, but not myths about Ukrainian-Jewish relations?


Have you ever heard that the first written mention of Kyiv was not even in Slavic language but in Hebrew? – It was in the famous Kyivan letter. It was discovered in 1962 during a survey of the Geniza documents by Norman Golb of the University of Chicago. Most scholars date the letter to around 930 CE. 

Have you ever heard of Canaanites, a medieval Jewish ethnolinguistic group whose spoken language was Slavonic, who existed in the East Slavic lands from 9 to 17? These were Jews who moved to the territory of modern Ukraine in the period around 800 CE and created even its Hebrew-Slavonic language when Yiddish even have not existed. 

Do you know that Hassidism was created in Ukraine, and the famous Baal Shem Tov was a good friend of the Fighter for Ukrainian Independence, Oleksa Dovbush? 

Ukrainian Jews, who left the Russian Empire because of the government pogroms, were the first Aliya members who came to the Eretz Israel at the end of the XIX century. 

Have you ever heard that more than 50 Hassidic dynasties were born in Ukraine and grew in Ukrainian society, including Ruzhin, Chornobyl, Skvyra, Breslov, and others?

Do you know that Jews from the Ukrainian city of Romny created the first kibbutz in Eretz Israel? How do you think who taught them to farm the land? Correct their neighbors and friends – Ukrainians. 

Ukraine is the 4th country in the world by the number of Righteous among Nations, with 2 673 honored people and families. At the same time, Russia has only 215 Righteous in its population, with more than 140 mln people now. 

Ukrainians and Jews held the first illegal rally in honor of the Baby Yar tragedy in 1966 together. At that time, young Ukrainian nationalists stood in an outer circle, protecting Jews (elderly, kids, women) who stood in the inner circle.

For me, as a Jew raised in Ukraine that never faced antisemitism for almost 30 years, it seems very clear that the roots of the anti-Ukrainian narrative of part of Israeli society are buried in Soviet/Russian propaganda. And that’s a pity that the Israeli educational system did not even try to learn history by facts, not myths. I would ask why there is no “special” attitude toward the Spanish that expelled Jews in 1492 and forcibly baptized thousands of Jews. Why do the modern state of Israel and Israeli society have no stereotypes about English people that expelled Jews in 1290? Why is Shakespeare not forbidden by the state of Israel, despite his anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice play?

Why none of Israeli politics are discussing the issue of the rising antisemitism in Europe? While Ukrainian Jews lived their traditional everyday life, Jews in France, Belgium, and other countries of the EU had to ask to secure their synagogues and schools by army and police. 

I have the only answer. It all happened because of the Russian lobby and massive Russian financial and political influence on Israel. Such an anti-Ukrainian narrative was gently raised in Israeli society through Russian propaganda with the help of misleading myths and a lack of education. Because of it, probably all that you learned about Ukraine before is fake.

About the Author
Ilya Bezruchko is CEO of the co-working network in Ukraine, a blogger and the Jewish activist.
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