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“I Pray for President Trump Every Saturday” - Chief Rabbi of Ukraine
20 August, 2019
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Chief Rabbi of Ukraine and Kyiv Moshe Reuven Azman during an interview, Kyiv, August 16, 2019 Hromadske

On August 19, the Prime Minister of Israel flew to Kyiv for the first time in 20 years. Benjamin Netanyahu last visited Ukraine in 1999 during his first premiership. 

Hromadske spoke with the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine and Kyiv Moshe Reuven Azman about the place of Israel in the life of Ukraine and Ukraine - in the life of Israel.

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How has Ukraine changed over these 20 years? Which country did the prime minister fly to this time?

Ukraine is developing today. Passing through the path of restoration, democratization and the path of the return of spirituality. This is the path it should pursue. It’s only a pity that this process is happening so slowly, but I think that Ukraine is moving in the right direction, and I believe there is a bright future for Ukraine. 

READ MORE: Ukraine's Zelenskyy Urges Israel to Recognize Holodomor as Genocide

What advice can Israel give to Ukraine, given the problems it is currently facing? 

I am not a politician, I can only speak about my outlook. As far as I know, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an experienced politician. He has been in power for 11 years - this is longer than all the previous heads of the Israeli government. God grant that he remains. I really respect him for what he has done for Israel.

I think he can give advice, because Ukraine is going down a path that Israel has already been through. This is the restoration of the state as a state, isolation, military operations and information war. In this respect, Israel has something to share.

Chief Rabbi of Ukraine and Kyiv Moshe Reuven Azman during an interview, Kyiv, August 16, 2019

Photo: Hromadske

Now Israel is preparing for the election campaign. The Likud party, led by Netanyahu, put up posters in which Netanyahu is shaking hands with various leaders, including Vladimir Putin. How correct do you think this is?

Russia is now actually operating next to Israel because of what is happening in Syria. Netanyahu has to manoeuver. I do not give him advice on what to do, but it seems to me that he is trying to maintain a balance, because Israel is in a very difficult situation. Thank God that America elected a president who loves Israel so much, helps it a lot and supports it greatly. The world is multipolar, we have to deal with everyone, negotiate, solve issues, but in any case it is always better to resolve the issue peacefully.

Likud Election Campaign Billboard with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tel Aviv, Israel, July 31, 2019

Photo: EPA-EFE / ABIR SULTAN

What is the role of the Holocaust in Ukraine?

The theme of the Holocaust is relevant. It should not be forgotten, because the Holocaust is a tragedy on the scale of all mankind. A third of the Jewish population was destroyed. Ukraine and Poland were the sites of the most large-scale inhuman killings. And Babyn Yar is the main place of mass destruction.

READ MORE: Babyn Yar Massacre Survivor: First-hand account

A new generation was born, and in Ukraine, as in the world, many people do not know that there was a Holocaust. And if they don’t know, then they can’t understand the lessons. In Ukraine, it is necessary to teach it in schools and not forget this topic, so God forbid it does not happen again.

Unfortunately, in Ukraine there is an uneasy story relating to the Holocaust - a large amount of righteous people saved Jews. These are heroes who risked their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, in order to save innocent people.

At the same time, there were people in Ukraine who collaborated with the SS. So, you need to know the truth and honor the memory of the dead.

There are problems with the placement of mass graves. Whenever some construction project begins, and a large gravesite is found, problems need to be solved with developers who want to continue construction. This is currently the situation in Poltava.

Anyone who remembers history must do everything so that the horror does not happen again.

Talking about Ukraine, What is it like? What have we come to now? Is Ukraine a tolerant country?

Of course. Ukraine is a tolerant country. I remember the Soviet times when there was state anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Ukraine has come a long way in restoration, cleansing, and change. Today, when I am asked about the level of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, I say that anti-Semitism exists in almost all countries where Jews live, and even where they do not live.

But in Ukraine, it is much less than in Russia or in Europe. In Europe, for example, today there is a very high level of anti-Semitism. This is connected more with extreme Islamic anti-Semitism - anti-Israelism. It may have changed shades, but it is in fact also anti-Semitism. Ukraine today is a tolerant country. We can see it even just from recent events, there is no need to prove.

You must remember that in the presidential election a Russian-speaking Jew won.

Of course.

One of my colleagues, a French - I believe - journalist, said that this was a kind of tribute to atonement, respect for the very dramatic story that connects our two peoples. And this is a symbol of reconciliation, when two peoples live together and a person of a different nationality can become the head of state.

I can’t say unequivocally why this happened. We must ask the Ukrainian people, who voted for him with such a large margin. This answers your question - is there anti-Semitism in Ukraine?

The Ukrainian people have become a mature people, they are tolerant, they are difficult to outwit. It’s not easy even to fool them with propaganda. It is very good that Ukraine is following the democratic path today. Through Euro-Atlantic integration.

Although I prefer Atlantic integration. Because not everything is that great in Europe. Democracy, tolerance and freedom of speech are good, but there are negative aspects. I don’t want to touch on them now. I hope that soon it won’t be Ukraine moving towards Europe, but Europe looking up to Ukraine. Ukraine has everything for this: the prerequisites, the right location, and the best land — black soil, and good people. I pray that everything works out.

Chief Rabbi of Ukraine and Kyiv Moshe Reuven Azman during an interview, Kyiv, August 16, 2019

Photo: Hromadske

You spoke with Volodymyr Zelenskyy. What drives him?

In my opinion, the fact that he became president was nonsensical even to him. He still does not understand what responsibility he would have to carry nor from where. I think a miracle happened.

For example, I watched the series "Servant of the People." I hardly watch TV, but I watched this series from start to finish. I believed in this series, believed in the image that he played, and I think that most people also believed.

At a meeting with the president, I told him: “To succeed, do everything as you did in the series.” In the series, everything that happens in the country is real, all the difficulties that his character had to overcome, and in the end he won.

If Zelenskyy does exactly the same thing, then he will also succeed.

And what was his response?

I do not remember. I think he heard me. My understanding is that he agreed with this.

I can’t help but ask you about a very strange story - about Rudy Giuliani, the lawyer of U.S. President Donald Trump. His visit to Kyiv was announced at your invitation, but in the end, Giuliani did not come to Kyiv. He spoke critically of the Ukrainian authorities and did not respond very well to [oligarch] Ihor Kolomoisky. As I understand it, you know both Giuliani and Kolomoisky, and talked with the president. What happened there?

It seems to me that an unfortunate mistake has occurred. I have a very good relationship with Giuliani and President Trump. There were no presidents who helped and loved Israel as Donald Trump does. I pray for him every Saturday.

Giuliani also does a lot of good things, he is a very historical person. It was an honor to speak with him on several occasions.

At the same time, I have great respect for Ihor Kolomoisky. I believe that this is the man who saved Ukraine at the start of 2014 - many have forgotten this. I have no special relationship with him, but I try to be objective. If not for him then, Ukraine would have been set on fire in many other areas.

It is a pity that this happened. I hope this will be fixed somehow. I think it was an annoying misunderstanding. I’m generally a man of peace - I always try to bring people together. Even a bad peace is better than some kind of war, especially one that nobody needs.

Giuliani told me that he will come to Ukraine soon. There are no concrete plans yet, but I really want President Trump to help Ukraine the way he helps Israel, this is very important, this would be fair.

READ MORE: Ukraine’s Lutsenko Deliberately Misinformed Giuliani - MP Leshchenko​

Do you not think that Giuliani, who is looking for compromising evidence on the Democrats, is drawing Ukraine into internal party clashes in the U.S., which wouldn’t be very good for Ukraine?

We have to be honest. I do not want to get involved in American politics. If we say that Ukraine helped the Democrats against Trump, then it must reveal all the cards so that the truth can be seen. It helped one party, but for some reason did not help another. Do not help anyone - neither this one nor that one. I believe that justice should prevail here.

Naturally, Ukraine must adhere to the right relations with all parties, like Israel does. Israel has good relations with both Democrats and Republicans. Ukraine should have a wise position. But not in the opposite way.

In that conflict it was the other way round; the cards were dealt to the other side. I will not say now why this happened. I think this is a misunderstanding. The new authorities are a team that may still be inexperienced. I think it will quickly gain experience.

As a person who communicates with Giuliani, can you tell us, what is his status?

I was inside of it all. He didn’t come by himself, but that was the mission of President Trump, as far as I know. This man is the confidant of the president, he is the president’s personal attorney.

We invited him to Anatevka, it’s a town near Kyiv. His closest assistants who came here were also the founders of the organization “American Friends of Anatevka”. These people are Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas. Everything went well, then it somehow incomprehensibly started going wrong. As far as I understand, he was going to meet with the president, but there was some kind of failure. In my opinion, all this can be solved, and I would really like it to be resolved, because Ukraine needs help.

It was very disappointing because he wanted to help Ukraine, he wanted everything to start on the right foot. And all of this can be done. People should just help each other, not interfere.

But what happened?

It was a misunderstanding. I don’t even want to go back to this, I just said what should have been. I have respect for both sides.

Maybe you can reconcile them?

If it were in my power, I would love to do it. I hope that everything will be alright. At a meeting with Giuliani, I told him and asked that they pay attention to Ukraine and provide assistance. I talked with him face-to-face for two hours in Paris, I can’t tell everything. But believe me, I wanted to achieve peace and draw attention to Ukraine. I hope that we will see the result soon.

Chief Rabbi of Ukraine and Kyiv Moshe Reuven Azman during an interview, Kyiv, August 16, 2019

Photo: Hromadske


In November 2018, you encountered another strange situation. You invited the director of National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) Artem Sytnyk to the Synagogue and said that his detectives were listening to the Synagogue. He denied this, saying that detectives of NABU did not listen in to anyone. How did this story end? And what was that all about?

I do not know what it was. I met Artem Sytnyk three times after that. We had good long meetings. I said right away that I supported NABU when it was created, because I believe that corruption is one of the most terrible things that exist in Ukraine. It’s good that there is a body that fights corruption. Unfortunately, I suddenly saw that they started persecuting people who have no relations to corruption.

On the other hand, those whom everyone knows to be corrupt, are left untouched. I personally had good talks with him. I brought everything that he asked for, passed everything over to him. What did he do in response? He disappeared, and this behavior is incomprehensible to me. To be honest, I grew disillusioned.

It’s clear that nothing is clear ...

They said that they were not eavesdropping, that they were not watching. But we had all of the evidence. Work when you need to work. But when you start persecutions and peculiar cases ... I told him everything I thought. I can be asked any questions because I don’t have secrets that I’m not ready to talk about. The only thing I do not like to talk about is the negative. I did not talk about negativity with NABU. If I could describe Sytnyk in one word, it would be “disappointment”.

Chief Rabbi of Ukraine and Kyiv Moshe Reuven Azman during an interview, Kyiv, August 16, 2019

Photo: Hromadske

What does Ukraine need to learn from Israel? And what can Israel learn from Ukraine?

Israel and Ukraine are very similar in their modern history. Israel has come a long way when they wanted to destroy it, and they want to, by the way. Despite the presence of both external and internal enemies, the country is developing and still exporting technology.

Ukraine has a lot in common with Israel. There are many Israeli companies that currently operate in Ukraine. Spiritually, Ukraine is the birthplace of Hasidism. For us, it is highly precious. There are more than a hundred burials of Hasidic righteous In Ukraine. Ukraine is the birthplace of Zionism. There are a lot of Israeli businessmen, tourists, pilgrims now in Ukraine.

In Israel, there are also a lot of tourists and business people. That means cooperation is already ongoing in many areas. I hope and pray, and I try to do my utmost whenever I am asked to do good for both Ukraine and Israel.

/Interview by Maxim Kamenev