Debate Rages Over Whether Ukraine Presidential Hopeful Is Jewish

While Arseny Petrovich Yatsenyuk insists he isn't, he daily reads and hears that he is a Jew.

Lily Galili
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Lily Galili

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad apparently is not Jewish, but there's a chance the candidate for the presidency in Ukraine elections in January 2010, Arseny Petrovich Yatsenyuk, is a Jew after all. While he insists he isn't, he daily reads and hears that he is a Jew - with rivals and Jewish organizations making political hay from the situation.

It seems like blatant political manipulation. In a country with an anti-Semitic instinct like Ukraine, a vaguely Jewish grandmother does wonders for electoral rivals. Sometimes Jewishness is used as an insult, sometimes people actually intend to flatter him with it, sometimes they scold him for concealing it. People even say he is a direct descendant of a family who wrote the Talmud, no less. Ukraine's chief rabbi, Yaakov Dov Bleich, says Yatsenyuk is a very nice guy and a worthy candidate for the presidency, but definitely not a Jew. Meanwhile, a pair of Jewish researchers in Ukraine have just named him one of the 50 most important Jews in the country. A great honor or a great deception?

How do they know Yatsenyuk is Jewish? Because that's what the media say. And how do the media know? Because everyone says so.

Arseny Petrovich Yatsenyuk has enjoyed a fine career in his 35 years - chairman of his country's central bank, economics minister, foreign minister and speaker of the parliament. He announced in April he would run for the presidency at the head of the Front for Change. He is running against veteran political lions such as Viktor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko also received a dose of Jewishness in the campaign; the nationalist right labeled her "the Jewish woman with the braid." Not a flattering nickname. While rumors about Tymoshenko's Jewishness died down, those regarding Yatsenyuk are multiplying. Commentators in Ukraine see that as proof of their accuracy.

When Yatsenyuk became a candidate to be foreign minister, rival parties began to take an interest in his origins. He pulled out his birth certificate and that of his mother, which contain no hint of any connection between him and Judaism. When, months later, he was elected speaker of the parliament, his hypothetical Jewishness became a multipurpose weapon.

In a parliamentary debate a member of a rival party wondered whether a Jew could be the speaker of Ukraine's parliament. A faction colleague, who looked upset, apologized for the very question and said she really doesn't care that Arseny Petrovich is a Jew. Since then, his Jewishness has ostensibly become an established fact, mostly yielding verbal unpleasantness, but here, a physical expression.

The most serious incident occurred in the city of Uzhgorod (formerly Ungvar), known as the Western gate of Ukraine. In August, Mayor Sergey Ratushnyak passed by a tent where young activists working for Yatsenyuk were distributing PR material. The mayor, from a rival party, was quite unenthusiastic about that. A slim, young activist claims the mayor attacked her; Ratushnyak, a large man, complains that she attacked him. The result was a bruised and beaten girl from an encounter with an elected official who was required to provide an explanation.

In interviews, Ratushnyak claimed the Jew Yatsenyuk was serving the interests of thieves who dominate Ukraine, and was using money from criminal activities to reach the presidency. On another occasion the mayor denied that Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar had refused to accept a medal from him. "The only thing that I'm willing to give him is a one-way ticket," the mayor was quoted as replying. Ratushnyak was forced to resign, but announced he would run in future for the job of president of Ukraine.

About three weeks ago Yuri Dubinsky, wearing a black skullcap, appeared on TV, introducing himself as the chairman of the Jewish community of Kharkov. Apparently this is a matter of controversy, but Dubinsky declared he was speaking not only in the name of all the Jews of Kharkov, and not just in the name of all the Jews of Ukraine, but for the entire Jewish people. He does not belong to any party, he said, but will support Yatsenyuk because of his Jewish origin.

In the name of the Jewish people he demanded the candidate not be ashamed and declare himself a proud Jew. Not only is his mother a scion of the ancient family whose members "wrote the Talmud," but his wife, Tereza, is the scion of the glorious Gur dynasty, which includes Israel's foreign minister. Well, there were stormy reactions.

A few days later Yatsenyuk participated in a televised election debate with Nestor Shufrich, a minister in Yanukovych's government. Yatsenyuk wanted to discuss the situation in Ukraine and its complex relationship with Russia. Shufrich pulled out a letter from Chabad members in Ukraine, expressing recognition of Yatsenyuk's Judaism and regretting that he is concealing his origins.

Followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe also published a long letter condemning Yatsenyuk for denying his Jewishness. It drew a reaction from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine (which officially represents Chabad as well). The federation said the letter in the name of the Lubavitcher community is nothing but a provocation and added: "We are opposed to any statement ostensibly made in the name of the Jewish communities."

Meanwhile, plans for a hotel on the site of Babi Yar have come up and been shelved. Yatsenyuk opposed the idea in a response to Ha'aretz before it was removed from the agenda. And Oleg Tyagnybok, presidential candidate of the nationalist Freedom party is shouting in front of the TV cameras that more than anything else, the younger generation in Ukraine should fear the Russian-Jewish mafia running the homeland. Were it not so serious, it could have been a very funny story.



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