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The situation in Ukraine

The country isn't some neo-Nazi playground as recent reports depict it to be

I wanted to throw the paper in the garbage as soon as my friend showed it to me. “Come home, Ukrainian Jews,” read the editorial in the Jerusalem Post. I think what bothered me most (other than misappropriating the timing of certain quotes and failing to give backgrounds on a few of the key players) was that I felt that they, like everyone else, were simplifying the conflict. I first arrived in Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer in March 2010, and it killed me to watch others ignore the complexities of the conflict: they say that it is East versus West, and they are all a bunch of anti Semites, and its a coup d’etat committed by a bunch of rag tag Neo Nazis. Amen, Sela.

It’s about East vs. West, they say. The country is split. The Western half of Ukraine, they tell you, strives to be a part of Europe, full of Ukrainian nationalists who disdain other nationalities. Meanwhile, the industrial East, they claim, is Russian at heart, with not a Ukrainophile to be found. Except this narrative doesn’t really fit for Serhiy Nihoyan, a 20 year old ethnic Armenian who was from Dnieperpetrovsk, one of the largest cities in the East. Serhiy was one of the earliest protestors to come to the square, and also one of its first fatalities. His face became a symbol of the movement, images plastered on pamphlets and across Facebook, a dark and bearded face as an emblem of a Ukrainian revolution.

“It’s run by the anti-Semites,” thats the mantra they’ve been telling. “A pogrom is just around the corner”. Or, as one of the Chief Rabbis of Ukraine said recently, “all Jews should leave.” But how does that explain the religious zealot and lover of Jabotinsky, who has been clad in camouflage and a bulletproof vest for a month, fighting for a free country next to Ukrainians with his Tzit-Tzit and Kippah there for all to see? And what about the Jewish professor and intellectual, staunch defender of Israel to all naysayers, who has risen to become one of the philosophical pillars of the protest movement? Or the young Jewish girl whose beautiful poetry and prose has helped keep the fires in their souls alive? Or the young Jewish professional who has been volunteering at medical clinics on back-to-back-to-back nights?

How do I explain that the attacks against Jews have been terrible, but that these are isolated instances in a swarm of violence? How do I convey that the recent firebombing of the synagogue in Zaporyzhya is a drop in the despicable bucket that has also left Kyiv’s city center blanketed in ashes? For a hundred have died and thousands have been injured and dozens of buildings have already been burned. The country mourns its dead and supports its injured and the vast majority abhor the violence, yet we see it as a plot against our people.

It’s a mess, they report, a bunch of militiamen flailing their guns wildly. But EuroMaidan is the best run Ukrainian operation I’ve ever seen. Named after the square in which it takes place (Maidan means square in Ukrainian), I was shocked on my first visit there last December how orderly everything seemed. There were places for meals and places for warm clothes and places to sleep and places to heal. And last week, when the call went out over Social Networking that the square was under attack, the people of Kyiv and of Ukraine came out in droves. All religions, all peoples, all ages, all political affiliations and languages descended on the square with medicine and food and blankets and cameras and sometimes clubs and shields. When the dust settled after the darkest Thursday most of them will ever see, they continued fighting, organizing, building barricades and mourning their fallen friends.

Saturday was bittersweet, because the cost of throwing off the yoke of tyrannical rule was so high. And as the terrible truths of the past few years were uncovered, the mansions with golden yachts displayed, and the emptiness of the country’s coffers became a reality, the momentary ecstasy disappeared. And so, on the square and in the Parliament and at the cemeteries Ukrainians and Armenians and Jews and Russians will continue to build, and create, and mourn.

These people have bled beside each other the last few months, and it is up to them to stay or to go. And stay they likely will: to build a stronger Ukraine, a better Jewish community, and a peaceful square.

About the Author
Jeremy Borovitz spent three and a half years in Ukraine, first as a Peace Cors volunteer and then as a volunteer with the Kiev Jewish community. He currently studies at the Pardes institute.