Ukraine's Jewish Community Wonders: Is Viktor Yushchenko Good for the Jews?

The 100,000 Jews living in Ukraine lack any real impact on election results in a country with 50 million inhabitants. But like other places in the world, Jewish strength is not measured in numbers only, but in terms of its economic and political power.

The 100,000 Jews living in Ukraine lack any real impact on election results in a country with 50 million inhabitants. But like other places in the world, Jewish strength is not measured in numbers only, but in terms of its economic and political power. At present, there are 15 Jewish representatives in the Ukrainian parliament, a number much greater than their proportion in the population, and Jewish tycoons can be found in the political camps of both challenger Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

According to sources following the election in Ukraine, most Jews supported the liberal Yushchenko, because of his links to the West, but also out of concern that the reelection of Yanukovych, with his ties to Russia, would force isolation on Ukraine and nudge it closer to the Arab world. However, Yushchenko's Jewish supporters are not without concerns over the strengthening of the Ukrainian nationalist elements in his party, which they believe could bring about an increase in anti-Semitism in the country.

"The present government, with its ties to Russia, is good for the Jews," said one Jewish activist in western Ukraine who asked to remain anonymous. "There were only short periods of independence in Ukraine. Objectively speaking, the struggle here now can be seen in a positive light as the beginning of the flourishing of a civil society. But from the Jewish perspective, I'm not sure it's good. The freedom heralded by Yushchenko's party strengthens nationalist elements around him. So far in western Ukraine [where most of whose residents supported Yushchenko], there have been fewer anti-Semitic incidents than in Western Europe. Here and there, swastikas were painted, sometimes tombstones were smashed. The present government is fighting this. So there is fear of change."

This attitude trickled down to an article published last week in the British daily The Guardian, which noted Yushchenko's ambivalent position on closing down an opposition paper after it published a stinging anti-Semitic article. The article in Selskie Vesti ("Village News"), stated that Jews had joined the German army in invading Ukraine. Senior Ukrainian officials, among them Yanukovych, called for the closing of the paper.

Yushchenko, however, wavered in his response. In the midst of the election campaign, the most widely read opposition paper, which had supported him, was too important to give up easily. Only after initial confusion did Yushchenko criticize the article and join the call to shut down the paper.

"I am convinced the article was commissioned to blacken the name of Yushchenko and sabotage a source of support for him," said Leonid Finberg, director of the Judaica Institute in Kiev and chairman of a publishing house. "Presenting him as a person who supports anti-Semitism is a terrible distortion. His father was in Auschwitz, and it is known that his family saved Jews during the Holocaust. The Ukrainian intelligensia, including the Jews, supports him completely. He had made a great contribution to constructive dialogue between the Jewish and the Ukrainian intelligensia."

Finberg also told of the strong position Yushchenko took at a conference on anti-Semitism in Sweden and about an appearance he made before a group of Ukrainian Jews.

Finberg attached little importance to graffiti calling to strike at Jews and Russians that was painted on the walls of clubs associated with Yushchenko, "There are nationalist and anti-Semitic elements on the fringes of all political personalities here. I have no doubt that Yushchenko and his people are not connected to this. Such graffiti can be found today all over the world, including Israel."

The head of the Ukrainian Jewish community, Yosef Zisles, rejected what he called "absurd rumors" connecting Yushchenko to anti-Semitism.