The Fight against Hatred: Why Jews must stand with Ukraine against Russian Imperialism

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“For Jews, the decision to support Ukraine against Russia is not as difficult as some might think. Not only are Russia’s claims of Ukraine as a ‘Nazist’ state utterly ridiculous, but the belief that Ukrainians have always hated Jews is equally flawed. Christians and Jews in Ukraine share a long history, so for Jews to turn their backs on Ukraine now is a mistake.”

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By Lev Daschko

TORONTO, March 8/22 – Today’s Ukraine is simultaneously an old and a young country. As an old country, the history of Christians and Jews in Ukraine is so intertwined that you can’t truly understand one without the other. The history of Jews in Ukraine dates to the 10th century, when individual Jews from Palestine, Byzantium, and Persia settled the territory of Kyivan Rus’. Starting with the Mongol invasion, the territory of Ukraine fell under the control of various foreign imperial powers, ending with the Soviet Union in 1991.

Really, we should think about the history of Jews and Ukrainians as parallel victimhood of two oppressed peoples. The core of antisemitism isn’t the hatred of real Jews but the ideas that others project upon them. Before the 20th century, Ukrainian Christians strained against religious persecution, serfdom, and the rule of the Polish and Russian nobility, which they transferred onto Jews. This was often because Jews worked as agents of the Polish nobility. At volatile moments of history, angry mobs of Christian peasants, who couldn’t attack their Polish and Russian rulers, who lay out of reach, focused on Jews instead. The indefensible anti-Jewish violence committed by Ukrainian Christians, just like all anti-Jewish violence, must be denounced in the strongest terms.

But just as Ukrainian Christians projected their frustrations onto Ukrainian Jews, Jews project our distrust of Christians onto Ukrainians. Many Jews see Ukrainians as symbols of all those who have persecuted Jews across European history. The commemoration of moments of anti-Jewish violence like the Khmelnytsky Uprising (1648-54) is celebrated in Ukraine for their promise of self-governance and liberty from imperial overlords, not because they resulted in Jewish deaths. In recent years, Ukrainians have supported open discussions over the gap between Christian and Jewish historical memory and how to reconcile the differences in a way that was never possible under Soviet rule.

Putin’s war is a war on anyone, of any faith, language, or ethnicity, who calls the country of Ukraine home

Just look at how Ukraine recognizes and commemorates its past atrocities, in sharp contrast to Russia’s continued silence. In the past decade, Holocaust museums and memorials to the victims of the Holocaust were erected in cities like Kyiv, at Babyn Yar. Under Soviet rule, the only marker at Babyn Yar commemorated the “citizens of Kiev [sic] and prisoners of war,” never explicitly recognizing Jews as the primary target; this only changed with the newly independent Ukraine. Furthermore, Ukrainian Jews have constructed new synagogues and restored old ones. Yet, as you read this, Russians are bombarding these cities, including damaging the museum at Babyn Yar.

But just as Ukraine is an old country, it’s also a young one. Today’s Ukraine is a post-Soviet society with a growing trend of progressive politics focused on the building of civil society and democratic institutions. In 2013, when those ideals were threatened by President Viktor Yanukovych (who previously tried to steal the presidency through a corrupt election in 2004), Ukrainians rose up to protest the move towards Russian authoritarianism and away from Europe. The resulting Revolution of Dignity (also known as Maidan) saw Ukrainians of many faiths and ethnicities fight for Ukrainian democracy. Yanukovych’s brutal repression of the protests took the lives of over a hundred people, including Jews. Today, these men are commemorated as the Heavenly Hundred, and, since 2014, many Jews are defending Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.

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Putin’s war is a war on anyone, of any faith, language, or ethnicity, who calls the country of Ukraine home. This diversity is an integral part of modern Ukrainian society. The current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as the previous prime minister Volodymyr Groysman, are Jews. The absurdity of Putin’s goal to “de-Nazify” Ukraine should be plain to see. Yes, Ukraine isn’t perfect. But is there any country free today from the scourge of far-right politics? In contrast to Putin’s authoritarianism and illiberalism, Ukrainians are actively committed to improving their country. In a 2021 poll by NDI, 61% of Ukrainians want a better balance between men and women in political life, and 76% want Ukraine to become a more fully functioning democracy defined by justice for all and the protection of human rights.

Jewish organizations in Canada and the world understand the need to support Ukraine. On the 25th February 2022, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) put out a press release stating that they “…stand with the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the people of Ukraine in opposing Vladimir Putin’s military aggression and violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.The Auschwitz Memorial re-iterated that “it is impossible to remain silent while, once again, innocent people are being killed purely because of insane pseudo-imperial megalomania.”

We should all be invested in Ukraine’s victory over Putin’s ultra-nationalism and brutal imperialism. Putin wants a world divided by hatred and lies that is unsafe for us and our children. Instead, we should celebrate the Ukrainian men and women of all faiths, at the forefront of this war, with Jews like Zelenskyy in their ranks, as evidence that democracy, love, and tolerance can be victorious.

Lev Daschko is a Canadian doctoral candidate at Northwestern University, studying modern Eastern European history. Lev is currently writing his dissertation on the imperial borderlands of Austrian Bukovyna, Romanian Moldavia, and Russian Bessarabia. His topics of interest include Jewish Studies, urban history, visual studies, Ukrainian-Jewish relations, and the First World War.

Written in collaboration with Marla Waltman, former president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Toronto.

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