Picture credit: Nina Liashonok / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Ukraine’s cross-cultural contradictions

Has Ukraine overcome its legacy of historical antisemitism?

Jewish-Ukrainian Relations and the Birth of a Political Nation: Selected Writings 2013-2023, Vladislav Davidzon, ibidem Press, £26.45

“Where can a Jewish parliamentarian call his country’s Jewish president a Nazi in the name of Mother Russia?” asks the Uzbek-born, Russian-raised, Paris-dwelling American Jewish journalist Vladislav Davidzon in concluding his final essay in this wonderfully vivid collection of writings on what one might anachronistically call the “Jewish Question” in the recent history of Ukraine.

Davidzon, a fellow of the Atlantic Council and contributor to numerous publications, is a strong supporter of the Ukrainian cause. He is so committed that he publicly burned his Russian passport in front of the Russian embassy in Paris after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and identifies support for Ukraine as his priority issue in the 2024 American presidential election. He is certainly one of the very few people on earth with the insight, experience, and background to give the idiosyncratic answer to the Sholem Aleichem-style riddle above, which is, of course, Ukraine. The incident in question occurred in the Ukrainian parliament in February 2021, when the Jewish MP Vadim Rabinovich, who would flee to Moscow after the war started a year later, threatened to impeach Ukraine’s Jewish president Volodymyr Zelensky amid epithets labeling Zelensky and his supporters “fascists” who he hoped would “die,” and then belted out a Russian-language, Soviet-era World War II anthem to taunt them.

Ukraine’s Jews, Davidzon maintains, are fully integrated into the country’s civic life

Rabinovich, whose Ukrainian citizenship was revoked amid accusations of treason after his flight, is nobody’s idea of a hero, but the confusion behind his identity politics is deeply woven into the cultural fabric of post-Soviet Ukraine as it grapples with its complicated past in search of what Davidzon pithily calls a “useable future.” As the distinguished French public intellectual Bernand-Henri Lévy points out in his laudatory and insightful foreword, Ukraine was both the land of the “Holocaust by bullets,” which claimed an estimated 1.5 million Jewish lives in the early phases of World War II, before the Nazis moved on to gas chambers, and home to the one of largest number of individuals declared “Righteous Among Nations” for having saved Jews from persecution.

Ukraine’s Jews, Davidzon maintains, are fully integrated into the country’s civic life — even overrepresented, in population terms, in its political, financial, and cultural leadership despite legacies of antisemitism. They share in Ukraine’s history, identity, national pride, and all the ambiguities that go along with them. For Davidzon, “the story of Ukrainian Jewry is at the very core” of the country’s recent past and current politics. Nothing could make that point louder than the election of Zelensky as president in 2019, though Davidzon reminds us that his opponents were the philo-Semitic incumbent president Petro Poroshenko and the partly Jewish dissident former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In his whimsical style, Davidzon also recounts a large group of Hasidic Jews donning Cossack outfits, singing nationalistic songs, and even exclaiming “Glory to Ukraine!,” an interwar slogan sometimes associated with nationalist antisemitism before the current war, all in an attempt to secure Covid-era transit rights to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in Ukraine.

These paradoxes are not peripheral. Discussion of such nationalist figures as Simon Petlyura, Stepan Bandera, and Metropolitan Andrei Sheptycky — all active in Ukrainian politics in the bloody era from the Revolution of 1917 to World War II — provoke much contemporary discussion. Can Ukrainian Jews accept them as national heroes who advocated a free Ukraine even if they harboured antisemitic or pro-German sentiments? Debate on their memorialisation rages.

Remembering the Holocaust is similarly complicated. The planned memorial at Babyn Yar, the site of a frightful massacre of Kiev’s Jewish population in 1941, has been plagued by its sponsorship from Jewish patrons who hail from Ukraine but identify more closely with Russia (one of them, Mikhail Fridman, was convicted and sentenced to prison in absentia amid broad international sanctioning). Their pro-Russian politics has nullified their support, but how far must one go to be a loyal Ukrainian? Zelensky highlighted the point during Benjamin Netanyahu’s official visit when, despite their shared Jewish heritage, Zelensky publicly asked his Israeli prime minister to recognize not the Holocaust but the Holodomor — the mass famine of the Stalinist 1930s — as a major source of national mourning and memory.

The outcome of the war still lies very much in doubt. But its resolution and what comes next will certainly involve a Ukraine whose Jewish heritage and community will play a considerable role.

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