Ukrainian-Jewish Relations And The Impact Of Euromaidan
24 October, 2017

For a thousand years, Ukrainians and Jews have lived side by side in the lands that make up modern Ukraine, but these relations have also seen their share of misunderstanding and conflicts.

“I spend a lot of my time explaining to my fellow Americans in the Jewish community that Ukrainians are not all pogromists and antisemites. And I think my counterparts in the Ukrainian-Canadian community also have to explain to their counterparts that not all Jews are communist commissars,” says Vladislav Davidzon, the chief editor of Ukrainian English-language magazine The Odessa Review. “These are really malicious stereotypes and cliches that don’t do anything for [this] relationship.”

The latest issue of The Odessa Review is dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish ties, the subject Davidzon, a well-rounded individual, is very interested it.

“This relationship is extraordinarily important,” he says. “Jews and Ukrainians lived on the territory of Ukraine for hundreds of years, a thousand years, and their cultures mingled and intermingled... And fed off each other.”    

Davidzon also argues that the 2014 Euromaidan revolution has changed a lot in Ukrainian-Jewish relations because both nations stood together in the protests and fought for the freedom and independence of Ukraine. This era, as well as the intercommunal relations in general, have become the inspiration for the latest issue of The Odessa Review.

Hromadske sat down with Vladislav Davidzon, the chief editor of The Odessa Review,  to discuss the relations between Ukrainians and Jews.

Can you tell me about your publication, the Odessa Review: what kind of publication is it, when did you launch it and what’s the idea behind it?

So The Odessa Review is an English-language magazine of culture and policy that we launched about a year and a half ago. I think February 2016, we launched a bimonthly magazine of culture and policy dedicated to contemporary Ukrainian culture and art and literature and policy issues. It’s not political. There’s way too much politics in Ukraine. Obviously, I think you know that. And there’s not enough culture. There’s not enough arts. There’s not enough literary journalism; there’s not enough cultural criticism. There’s not enough commentary on the way that policy interacts with a particular worldview. So that is not being done enough, and we thought that there would be ideological space, intellectual space for a journal that deals with these issues. And we founded a magazine, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised that people like it.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

So what would you say is the audience for the magazine?

So it’s kind of a beautifully produced curio object. It’s a high modernist, late modernist 1930s-style partisan review almost, a little magazine, as we call it in the States. I’m an American, I grew up in the States. In the West, there’s this tradition of little magazines, which are lovingly produced by policy people and intellectuals and culture people, that have a very limited distribution. We’re not so limited. We have 10 thousand printed of each issue. But it’s a small thing. It’s not a newspaper, it’s not a grand project, where hundreds of thousands of issues are printed. It’s a small magazine of ideas and policy and culture that I hope, like the Partisan Review or Commentary or the Paris Review, has an outsized influence on the culture and debate and dialogue. And we’re interested in really discussing the cultural implications of the new Ukraine. We’re really interested in looking at what the outcome is of the last couple of years of ferment — culturally, politically, socially.

So the latest issue is dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish relations. Where did this idea come from and what are some of the highlights of this issue you would say?

So, I’m really proud of this issue. We’ve been working on it for a long time with our friends and partners in the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter. And, you know, it’s an extraordinarily important issue, first of all, to me, because I am the grandson of Ukrainian Jews. Both my grandparents, two of my grandparents were born in Ukraine, in Chernivtsi and Khotinsk… The question of ethnic minorities is extraordinarily important now, that Ukraine is building a political nation. The Maidan, February 22 was the birth of a Ukrainian political nation separate from an ethnic political nation or from a post-Soviet state, that’s when Ukraine really came into its own as an independent nation with its own national and postnational identity...a political nation based not on ethnicity and maybe not even on language, although obviously language is an issue, but on an idea of civic nationalism and patriotism, right? Not an idea of ethnos, but an idea of culture, an idea of an imagined community of people living together in a state not based on ethnic nationality. And so a few ethnic minorities were extraordinarily important here, the lands of contemporary Ukraine, the lands that make up the contemporary Ukrainian state, cobbled together in a sense, but these are lands that existed from one time to another in different empires. Timothy Snyder says it used to be the bloodland of Europe. But it’s not any longer, right? So in the contemporary space of the demarcation, the borders, the boundaries of the Ukrainian nation state, there were always lots of different people living here: Poles, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, right? And both the Jews and the Crimean Tatars and everyone else proved on the Maidan and after Maidan, the events that took place, that they were good Ukrainians. That had nothing to do with your ethnicity that you’re a patriot of this country. I’m a patriot of this country and I don’t have any Ukrainian blood. I have three Jewish grandparents and one grandmother who is half-Russian, half-Mordvian. So I don’t have any Ukrainian blood, but I have connection to the land since my grandparents were born here and I have a connection to the nation because my wife is Ukrainian. But I really care about the Ukrainian political nation as a civic national structure. So, that’s one thing.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

The other thing is that I made my way in American journalism in a few things: I was a book reviewer and I did other sorts of “long form journalism”...But I grew up working for a magazine called Tablet, the Jewish Tablet. It’s the main English-language American magazine of the Jewish community in America. It’s a fantastic place and I’m very glad that I got my start as a serious journalist working there. And so I was always reporting on the Ukrainian-Jewish relationship, which is extraordinarily interesting and extraordinarily important also, because it’s a microcosm of lots of issues having to do with history and ideology and the construction of the nation-state. In the way that Russian-propaganda has played out in the last three years, the issue of whether or not Ukraine really is governed by a “junta,” is filtered through World War II memory. Obviously, there’s no junta in Kyiv. That’s ridiculous. But if you prove that Ukrainians are ethnic nationalists once again, you prove that, you know, the situation here is bad for Jews and anti-Semitism is on the up-and-up, then you prove that there are really fascists here. But that’s not the case. There are no structural problems for Ukrainian Jews. Ukrainian Jews are well-integrated into the nation, they’re very happy here, and we’re living in a golden age of relations between Ukrainians and Jews. So that’s extraordinarily important.

What would you say are the highlights of this specific issue?

So, I think it’s a really really special issue and we worked on it very hard: me and my colleagues and the staff of the Odessa Review. We have four or five pieces in it, which are world-class, really excellent. Pieces that would be considered additions to the literature and the debates in any magazine, scholarly journal, or newspaper. I’m very proud of them. We have something by Timothy Snyder. He gave a speech in the Bundestag about Germany’s relationship to the Ukrainian state and Germany’s relationship to Ukrainian memory. That’s a very special thing. So we have Timothy Snyder in this issue. Obviously, no one who follows these debates needs to be introduced to Timothy Snyder. We have a very interesting article by Shimon Redlich, a Holocaust survivor and one of the great experts on the Holocaust. And it’s about his relationship to the legacy of [Metropolitan Andriy] Sheptytsky. Of course, Andriy Sheptytsky is a great figure and a great inspirational figure for contemporary Ukrainian nationalism, right? So that’s a fantastic piece. We have a really good piece by a really interesting American-Israeli scholar by the name of Olga Gershenson. She wrote the seminal book in 2013 on the Holocaust in Soviet film. So, Soviet films or post-Soviet movies haven’t really tackled the issue of the Holocaust on screen. There have been a couple of films, and you’ll go through the pieces and you’ll see them, but, for the most part, the Holocaust wasn’t really dealt with in the film imagination of the Soviet Union. So that’s an extremely important piece, I think. There’s like forty articles in this issue and they’re all really good. Some are better than others, but they’re really good.

So you’ve spoken a lot about Ukrainian-Jewish relations already but what would you say were the biggest challenges over the last years?

Which years are we talking about? 1941 to 1949 or 1950?

Just in general, in Ukrainian-Jewish history.

Ukrainian-Jewish history is actually a thousand years long. People don’t know this but Ukraine, or the lands that make up contemporary Ukraine, constitutes the cradle of Ashkenazi Jewish civilization. 95% of the world’s Ashkenazi Jews, European Jews probably can trace their lineage to one place or another that is in contemporary Ukrainian territory or right next to it, maybe a little bit on the side of Belarus or on the side of Poland. But, you know, this is the cradle of Jewish civilization. And Jews and Ukrainians have lived together for thousands years, this is very important.

What about now? What do you think are the biggest challenges at the moment?

I think the biggest challenges for the Ukrainian-Jewish community are, as they are for the Ukrainian community, in terms of safety being the Donbas. I think the Jewish community of Donbas... it’s a tragedy, Luhansk and Donetsk have a lot of Jews. These are important historically for Jews and Ukrainians. I think the Jewish community of Donbas had to leave for these reasons. I think that’s the biggest issue in terms of physical safety and security. I think mutual recognition is still important. Especially in the the third and fourth generation diaspora in Canada, America - both ethnic Ukrainian and ethnic Jews have a lot of really bad stereotypes about each other. I think… You know, I spend a lot of my time explaining to my fellow Americans in the Jewish community that Ukrainians are not all pogromists and  antisemites. And I think my counterparts in the Ukrainian-Canadian community also have to explain to their counterparts that not all Jews are communist commissars, right? These are really malicious stereotypes and cliches that don’t do anything for [this] relationship. I mean there was a big problem. I wrote about this in Tablet magazine extensively that there was a problem where the outgoing Obama administration put pressure on the Poroshenko administration to vote against Israel in the UN Security Council resolution against Israel in December 2016. So relations between Israel and Ukraine were very bad for about seven-eight months after that. And that is the fault of the outgoing Obama administration. I think a lot of pressure was put on the Ukrainians. That’s one issue but that’s been resolved now happily. This country has an Ukrainian of Jewish descent who’s a prime minister and no one cares about that - that’s fantastic. Other problems, other problems… Are there other problems? There are really no issues with being a Jew in Ukraine, just like there are no issues of being an ethnic Russian in Kyiv, or a Crimean Tatar in Lviv. It’s a very tolerant country, it’s a model for post-Soviet decommunized countries. That’s why I live here.

That’s nice. So would you say that Ukrainian-Jewish relations changed a lot since 2014?

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

In this issue, I have a couple of articles dealing with that. First of all, we reprinted Vitaliy Portnikov’s famous essay from March 9 or 10, 2014: a week after Maidan he penned this article saying that this basically shows that Ukrainian Jews are part of the birth of the Ukrainian political nation. You know, there is something to say about the fact that many Jews here of post-Soviet culture were Russian speakers and one reason for that is that simply the Jews of Bukovyna, the Jews of Chernivtsi were wiped out. There were 140,000 Jews in Lviv before the Nazis got there and there were eleven after the Nazis were kicked out of Lviv. Those were all Ukrainian-speaking Jews - they were closer to the border than my family in Odesa. And my family in Odesa are Russian-speaking Jews. For most part, Hitler destroyed internally the demographics of the balance between the Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking Jews. Simply because of pressure for Soviet integration, assimilation, the Jews of Ukraine, the Jews of Russian-speaking parts of East and Russian-speaking Jews became moral Soviet citizens and they spoke Russian, right? So some people, some Ukrainians thought that Jews made a decision to become Russian speakers but that’s not quite the case. It’s extraordinarily complicated history and most people don’t know a lot about it. It’s very important that people understand the depth of the complexity and the kinds of decisions that these communities had to make. And there is no talking about that, that Portnikov made a case in March 2014 that the Ukrainian Jews are now becoming full-fledged members of the Ukrainian political nation. And that’s the answer to your question. You know this is one facet of decommunization and the floating apart, or the evolution in different directions of the Russian and the Ukrainian state. The Russian state had total capture of Ukrainian state, and now, because of real independence and the collapse of the interdependence, Russians and Ukrainians are two different nations slowly evolving in different directions. So in some ways, there’s no difference in the culture of my family, Russian-speaking Jews from Tashkent, or our family in Moscow - Russian-speaking Jews in Moscow, or my family in Odesa - Russian-speaking Ukrainian Jews in Odesa. In some ways the internal dynamics of the way we psychologically interact, we eat, gather for holidays - there’s no difference. Because Ukrainian Jews are becoming more Ukrainian like everybody else in this country – whatever that might mean - they’re evolving in different directions from the Russians and the Russian Jews. And that’s what happened in 2014, that’s the new thing that happened.

And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

That’s a natural process, that is a natural process. I mean Russian-speaking Jews took the side of the Russian state in Russia. Russian citizens, citizens of Russian Federation took the side of Russia in this conflict. And Ukrainian-speaking Jews, Ukrainian Jews, Ukrainian citizens or just ethnically Jewish or Jewish by the religion took the side of the state that they’re citizens of, which is as it should be, right? You should be a patriot of the state you have the passport of, right? I mean, unless you’re an anarchist, which is a viable operative. It’s a good thing, yes. It’s a good thing that the Ukrainian political nation is growing and evolving and integrating all sorts of minorities in a productive way. Yes, it’s a good thing.

So what do you think the future hold for these relations?

I think one of the really really interesting things about contemporary Ukrainian even nationalism and in a war situation people become nationalistic. And there’s a war going on, obviously. In such a situation... By the way, the entire magazine’s about culture; it’s not about war or anything. I’ve never had the name Poroshenko or Yatseniuk in the magazine. This is the eleventh issue and the name President Poroshenko has never been in any of the issues of this magazine. We don’t really… I mean it’s Odesa, so we wrote an article about Saakashvili’s “bardak” and the “balagan” in the region... We’re not political though. But, you know, in the situation where there is politics it’s extraordinarily complex and extraordinarily fraud politics... you do have to take a position in terms of the direction you’re going in - both as an individual and as a community, as a nation, as a community you have to take a position. And the fact that Ukrainian nationalism, which does exist, there’s not as much of it as, say, in France or England or in Belgium now or whatever. This is not a country that has tremendous issues with jingoism. But there are people fighting in the east of this country who are extraordinary nationalistic, but I don’t think they hate anybody as long as that person considers themselves to be a patriotic member of the society and a citizen, right? So none of the even kind of right-wingy volunteer battalions have any kind of Jew-hating or ethnic nationalist ideology. I mean there were individuals who think like that, but for most part, no one thinks like that. So as long as there’s no blood-in-soil nationalism in this country I just don’t see it in any kind of substantive, systematic way at this point, there’ll be no issues. I mean it’s tremendous that four years after Maidan almost there is…  If we were in other countries, many many other countries in the world where there’d be a lot more tribal ethnic conflicts within the society than there are here now. It’s extraordinarily impressive that the Ukrainians are as tolerant as they are in a bad situation as this is.

Ok, and do you know what the next issue is going to be on? What are you planning for the magazine, if that’s not a secret?

It’s a bit of a secret. We have an editorial meeting tomorrow, so I have to keep it secret for the next 24 hours.

So we have to wait and see, I guess.

You have to wait and see. But you know this relationship is extraordinarily important and as our friends in the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter organization that supported this issue and who are doing fantastic work for mutual recognition and understanding between Ukrainians and Jews in Ukraine and in the diasporas in Canada, Israel, America and France - everywhere where there are Ukrainians and Jews, or there are Jews relating to Ukrainians or Ukrainians relating to Jews. They always say that our stories are incomplete without each other. Jews and Ukrainians lived on the territory of Ukraine for hundreds of years, a thousand years, and their cultures mingled and intermingled and co-mingled and did all sorts of other mingling-type activities. And fed off each other and, you know, it’s an important thing. And I’m very proud of this issue; I’m very proud of taking part in these historical debates, which I think are very important.

/By Maria Romanenko