Op-Ed: Ukraine and Us
Rabbi Berel WeinRabbi Berel Wein is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator, admired...
Ukraine occupies a very tortured and bloody place in the history of Eastern Europe. Sandwiched between Poland, Austro-Hungary and Russia and being neither Polish nor Russian in language, faith and ethnic culture, it always found itself in a very bad neighborhood.
Stalin and Khruschev starved five million Ukrainians to death in the 1920s to enforce their agricultural collectivization program. Much of Ukraine served as the battlefield between the German and Russian armies during World War II and its landscape remains scarred by those battles even today, seventy years later.
Unspeakable atrocities occurred daily in Ukraine in World War II with both German and Russian armies being guilty of inhuman behavior on a vast scale. Ukrainian nationalism was squashed by the heavy hand of the Soviet Union until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Ukraine declared its independence then and has been searching for a way to build for itself a form of democratic government, a working economy and a better life for its citizenry.
Over the last twenty years it has had its ups and downs and never really achieved for itself the blessings that it hoped independence from the Soviet Union would achieve. The Russian bear has now reappeared on its eastern border and once again threatens Ukrainian independence and territory.
Putin, in his inimitable fashion, mocks the impotence of the United States and the West and things look fairly bleak for the future of Ukrainian independence. There is no one in the Ukraine, I believe, that thinks that the United States or the European Union is prepared to ride to Ukraine's rescue.
And so, like many other countries, ours included, Ukraine has the bad fortune of having to live in a very bad neighborhood.
The history of Ukraine and the treatment of its Jewish population is also a sad and bloody one. The great pogroms of 1648 and 1649 that killed hundreds of thousands of Jews were led by the Ukrainian nationalist Bogdan Chmeilitzki. There is a statue in his honor in the main square of the city of Kiev. To Ukrainians he is a national hero. To the Jews he is recorded in our history as a villain first-class, a murderer of women and children and is listed together with Haman and Hitler in the unsavory pantheon of Jew haters and anti-Semites.
In World War II and the ensuing Holocaust, a substantial number of Ukrainians served in the SS, were camp guards in the concentration and killing camps and were willing collaborators with the Nazis in rounding up the local Jewish population for deportation and murder. Now naturally, the Ukrainians were no different than most of the populations of Europe in the 1940s.
France and Holland, Belgium and Poland were also countries rife with collaborators who helped the Nazis eradicate their Jewish populations. Much of this has been smoothed over by the West, though to me it explains the almost knee-jerk reaction of enmity of the European Union to the State of Israel and to the Jewish people, its faith and religious rituals.
The current spate of banning ritual kosher slaughter and the opposition to circumcision represents only the tip of the iceberg, underlying the true feelings and policies of Europe towards the Jews – a legacy of fifteen-hundred years of persecution and hatred. Still Ukraine holds a very prominent place in this sad and unreasonable story of the oppression of the Jews.
We are told that there are still approximately two-hundred-thousand Jews living in Ukraine as of today. There has already been a call by smaller Jewish communities in Ukraine asking Israel to send security forces to their communities to help protect them from the ongoing anti-Semitic acts and expected violence.
It will be interesting to see what if anything Israel can or will do to defend those Jews who still live in Ukraine. After all, if Israel is not a Jewish state but just a state where Jews live, then why should it be more concerned over the fate of people living in Ukraine than are any of the other countries of the world.
A great deal of Jewish money and effort has been invested over the last twenty years in attempting to revive Jewish life in Ukraine. The results are murky and mixed. What is pretty clear though is that most Ukrainians would prefer their country to be judenrein.
I cannot judge other Jews for their motives and behavior, their actions and inaction. Nevertheless, it seems to me that those Jews living in Ukraine and who somehow have not previously absorbed the lessons of Jewish history regarding Ukraine and the Jews would do well now to think again about remaining there.
Whatever the future of the Ukraine will be, it should be obvious that there really is no Jewish future possible there. It is perplexing and fascinating at one and the same time to witness how the Lord is staging this drama for us in this season of the year.