Text size

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko made combating anti-Semitism a key plank in his visit to Israel when he strongly condemned it in a speech to the Knesset yesterday.

He also gave President Shimon Peres a box of relevant archive materials. These documents, pinpointing mass Jewish graves from the Holocaust, came from KGB archives, along with surveillance reports from the last century on Jewish activists in Ukraine.

Three weeks ago Yushchenko gave instructions to return to the Jewish community 700 Torah books that had been confiscated by the Communist government. He also promised to return state-expropriated synagogues.

Speaking at a joint news conference at the president's residence, Yushchenko said he held the relationship between Israel and Ukraine in high regard and suggested that the two countries have a shared future despite a difficult history.

He said anti-Semitism was not widespread in Ukraine and that his country wanted to open a new leaf in its relations with Israel. "In the State of Israel we see a loyal partner and the best friend in all areas relating both to regional and global issues," Yushchenko said. "Ukraine wishes to play a role in the peace process."

Later, at Israel's Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, Yushchenko was criticized by Yad Vashem council head Yosef Lapid for posthumously conferring the title of Hero of Ukraine on Roman Shukhevych. Lapid said the Ukrainian nationalist was a war criminal who headed a Ukrainian legion regiment that slaughtered some 4,000 Jews in Lviv (Lvov)in 1941.

Yushchenko said he had studied the issue and that Shukhevych was not an anti-Semite or responsible for the pogrom.

Yushchenko, who visited Yad Vashem with his wife, brought a stone from the Babi Yar massacre site and a prayer book inscribed with the names of his family members who had been murdered. He was presented with documents concerning his father's imprisonment by the Nazis. The president's father was a Soviet soldier who was captured in 1944 and imprisoned for a year.

Yushchenko told the Knesset plenum that his country would not tolerate any form of anti-Semitism or xenophobia. "We will fight against these evils that poison all good things," he said, adding that a museum commemorating the Holocaust is currently under construction in Ukraine.

Before speaking at the Knesset, he toured the old city of Jerusalem and placed a note between the stones of the Western Wall. Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz said Yushchenko told him the objective of his visit to Israel was to "express solidarity with the Jewish people and their heritage and pray at the religion's holiest site."

Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik did not mention Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust while addressing Yushchenko, but did echo his sentiments on Stalin's massacre of Ukrainians.

"In the State of Israel we see a loyal partner and the best friend in all areas relating both to regional and global issues," Yushchenko said. "Ukraine wishes to play a role in the peace process," he said at the news conference with Peres.

Peres said: "Parallel to the political process there is now also an economic process, and I suggest that Ukraine take part in building the economic peace. I think the president (Yushchenko) liked this idea."We don't need to erase the past, nor should we neglect the future," Peres said. "There have been some very difficult chapters in our history."

During his visit with Peres Yushchenko also met Trade and Industry Minister Eli Yishai, who wished to discuss the crisis over the Breslau Rabbi tomb compound in south Ukraine. Because of a debt the Breslau center incurred, a Ukrainian court threatened to confiscate the compound. Yishai said Yushchenko promised to intervene to help Breslau hasidim maintain control of the compound.