Taking Ukraine’s side – because of, not in spite of, our history

Ukraine to many Jews conjures up bad memories – pogroms, collaboration with Nazis, anti-Semitism spanning centuries. So when Russian President Putin claims that Nazis have come to power in a putsch in Kiev, we take notice.

But we should not be conned. Putin, who tolerates and even encourages the Russian far Right, is trying to manipulate world opinion. And he’s doing so quite effectively, despite the facts being completely against him.

Ukraine is not in the grip of some neo-Nazi putsch. The far Right did rather poorly in Ukraine’s elections. The Jewish community in Ukraine is solidly behind the country’s elected government.

What should matter to Jewish communities and the state of Israel is that Putin has invaded eastern Ukraine in a brazen attempt to redraw international borders. Just as he did last winter in Crimea. And Crimea was not the Russian President’s first act of international banditry.

Putin was largely responsible for the brutal suppression of the independent Chechen republic in the 1990s.

He then sent Russian tanks into independent Georgia in 2008, seizing control of the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, stopping the attack at the very gates of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. He described the Russian war aim as to hang the Georgian president “by the balls”.

Allowing such aggression to continue unchallenged is not in Israel’s interests. And the Jewish people have nothing to gain from an empowered Russia in pursuit of a new empire.

But Ukraine? Surely we can show no sympathy for a people that has only hated us and persecuted us.

Let’s start by admitting that Ukraine does indeed have a long history full of anti-Jewish horrors including pogroms. As did most of the other countries in the region, including Russia itself. In the tsarist empire, Ukraine was no more or less anti-semitic than any other region.

In 1941, many Ukrainians did welcome the German invaders as liberators from Stalinist rule. But in most cases, they were quickly disappointed and turned on the Nazis.

Let’s not forget the many Ukrainians who fought and died in the Red Army and as partisans in the fight against Germany. They far outnumber the collaborators and the Jewish people owe them a debt of gratitude for their fight and their sacrifices. Without them, the Germans would never have lost the war.

Just as the central fact of twentieth century history for the Jewish people was the Holocaust, for the Ukrainians it was the “terror-famine” carried out deliberately by Stalin in 1932-33 to crush the Ukrainian peasantry. No one knows precisely how many Ukrainians died, but there were certainly millions of victims. There is no question that it was a deliberate act of genocide.

Just as Jews around the world have a special term for the Nazi genocide we suffered – Shoah – so the Ukrainians use the term Holodomor to describe the horror of Stalin’s terror-famine.

This shared suffering, this experience of genocide at the hands of ruthless, totalitarian regimes, could be a bridge between Ukrainian and Jewish people. In some cases, it has already played that role.

I had the opportunity two decades ago to speak at a meeting of Ukrainians and Jews in Jerusalem, and to address the question of their genocide and ours. Some of the participants were old enough to have remembered that terrible period and spoken about it.

What unites Ukrainians and Jews is far more important than what divides us. We are both peoples that have suffered enormously in the last century, victims of Russian Stalinist and German Nazi barbarity. We have both looked into the abyss.

Today Ukraine once again faces a bullying neighbor in Russia, and needs the support of the entire international community to resist Putin’s efforts to carve up their country.

As a Jew, and knowing the history of our peoples, there is no question which side I am on.

About the Author
Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. His most recent book is The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 (Zed Books, 2017). He was a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor from 1981-1998.