Ukrainian Jews and the national idea in the post-Maidan Ukraine

The time of Maidan was decisive for the Ukrainian Jewry, as far as many of them for the first time felt belonging to the country and its history. Still, the presence and active participation of the right-wing organization in the Maidan protests raised the question of anti-Semitism in these groups.


The post-Maidan history of Ukraine is marked by the raise of nationalist sentiments in the society and the political sphere. The consequent question of this process is how far Ukrainian far-right can go and what kind of impact it will have on Jewish-Ukrainian relationships which still face many unsolved problems of the past. The fact that many Ukrainian Jews cordially welcomed the Maidan and its demands, gave a hope for the beginning of a dialog on the controversial historical topics, like the Khmelnitsky Revolt, political ambitions of Simon Petliura, or the activities of Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during World War II, which were evaluated by Jewish tradition and Ukrainian historical memory with the converse conclusions. The other post-Maidan expectation was elimination of anti-Semitism; neither actually happened.

Still, is important to remember that the Ukrainian right and ultra-right organizations are not the only force ‘responsible’ for anti-Jewish sentiments in the country. There is a whole scope of marginal neo-Nazi groups who collaborate with Russian neo-Nazis, as well as pro-Russian parties which vote for the re-union of Russia and Ukraine on the ground of Russian Orthodoxy. The latter are active in the territories of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics and openly operate with anti-Semitic rhetoric. However, the problems of the Russian anti-Semitism in Ukraine will be left aside in this article, while its main focus is the role of Ukrainian right-wing ideology in the developing national historical narrative, as well as the place of Ukrainian Jewry in it.

The “Jewish card” is frequently used by Ukraine in the political game with Europe, Russia and even with Israel: while the mainstream political agenda still maintains nationalist sentiments, the exported image of Ukrainian nationalism/patriotism is completely Jewish-friendly and safe. Indeed, the level of anti-Semitism in Ukraine resembles its ups and downs in other European countries, and is much lower than in other European countries (i.e. 23 incidents in Ukraine vs. 850 in France in 2014)[1].

However, the insensitivity of local political elites to the controversial historical issues, various anti-Semitic statements from the leaders of right-wing parties, and the actual rise of anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine, show that the dynamic of Jewish-Ukrainian relationships is not so optimistic. Nevertheless, liberal Jewish and Ukrainian intelligentsia tends to underestimate the possible threat from the right-wing parties and even from nationalistic tendencies in the contemporary Ukrainian political sphere. Partially it is a result of the defensive strategy, adopted by the Ukrainian politicians and intellectuals as an answer to Russian anti-Maidan propaganda, which frequently described the Maidan participants as brutal and violent anti-Semites, falsifying information even on the Russian governmental TV channels.

This indulgence towards the right-wingers, however, existed even before the Maidan. This trend became apparent in the mid 2000s, when the right-wing party Svoboda started to gain power and support from the various groups of Ukrainian population. It was founded in 1991 in Lviv as a Social-Nationalist party of Ukraine, but in 2004 it changed its name to more moderate variant Svoboda (“freedom” in Ukrainian) in an attempt to join big political arena as an ally of the pro-Western candidate and the eventual winner of the president elections in 2004, Victor Yushchenko. At the same time Svoboda got rid of its swastika-like logo and “white power” rhetoric, typical for its early years, and switched to the issues of Ukrainian language and culture, attracting many representatives of Ukrainian liberal intelligentsia.[2] Already in 2012 Svoboda won 37 places out of 450 in the Parliament, which was the first big success of a right-wing party in Ukraine.

In 1990s another right-wing party UNA-UNSO made an attempt to get to the Parliament, but it was eventually banned in 1995 due to its openly xenophobic and militantly nationalistic rhetoric. After the party was re-registered in 1997 it participated in the Parliament elections, but got only 0,37 % of the votes. Svoboda, however, dared to be openly Russophobic in the country with a significant part of Russian and Russian-speaking population and enjoyed national support. Its anti-Semitism was also an elephant in the room, and surprisingly, Jewish intelligentsia seemed to ignore this problem.

In particular, in the interview to the Jewish newspaper Hadashot (April 2014, #4) the leader of the Ukrainian branch of Vaad (The Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities) Josef Zissels argued that Svoboda is not a threat to Ukrainian Jews, as far as it incomparable to openly anti-Semitic and militant parties like Hungarian Jobbik or Greek Golden Dawn. He showed his obliviousness, arguing that Svoboda never used Nazi symbols or did not have militarized groups, which was simply not true.[3] However, in 2014 Zissels had the reason to claim that Ukrainian far right supporters are not dangerous to the Jews: it was one the lowest points of anti-Semitic violence in Ukraine and the number of attacks did not outreach 10 (according the calculations of Vyacheslav Likhachev), and sporadic anti-Semitic remarks of the Svoboda functionaries seemed allegedly unharmful.

The time of Maidan was decisive for the Ukrainian Jewry, as far as many of them for the first time felt belonging to the country and its history. Still, the presence and active participation of the right-wing organization in the Maidan protests raised the question of anti-Semitism in these groups. Nevertheless, Ukrainian Jewish intellectuals, who participated in the Maidan objected to those accusations. In particular, the famous painter Alexander Roitburd in his Facebook post, dated February 4, 2014, emphasized that he encountered only few anti-Semites on the Maidan, but most of them were marginalized bigots, while the actual nationalist organizations never supported anti-Jewish aggression.

Odessa, Rabbi and the Right Sector 10.04.2014
The rabbi and the Right Sector (Odessa, 10.04.2014)

Jewish interest to the Maidan has also changed ideological horizon of the Ukrainian right-wingers. The protests were a nursery room for another nationalist organization and later a party, called Right Sector (created on the platform of UNA-UNSO), which from the beginning was a political counterpart of Svoboda. The leader of Right Sector Dmytro Yarosh was more sensitive to the political conjuncture, so preferred not to follow the Svoboda’s anti-Semitic sentiments which could distract perspective Ukrainian and European allies. He emphasized that his party is tolerant and open to Jews, who can also contribute to the struggle for Ukrainian freedom. Right after the Maidan, Right Sector started a very active PR campaign, which had to prove its philosemitism and attract Jewish supporters.

In particular, the representative of Right Sector colonel Valeriy Zagorodniy went to Odessa to help a chief Rabbi of Odessa Abraham Wolf with painting the walls of a synagogue, vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti; the party also demonstrated to the press their Jewish members and supporters, in particular a  spokesperson (now former) of Right Sector Boryslav Bereza or a religious Jew Asher Cherkassky, who served on the Eastern Ukraine as a volunteer of the battalion Dnipro-1. Svoboda, however, did not reject its anti-Semitic sentiments, although it never was a primary agenda for the party. In fact, despite all the optimistic prognoses of Ukrainian and Jewish intelligentsia, even superficial glance at the programs of Right Sector and Svoboda can show that none of them is actually tolerant to Jews or any other cultural or religious minority.

In their programs both of the parties emphasize supremacy of the Ukrainian nation and its national struggle. In particular, Right Sector says that Ukraine should be ruled by “natiocracy”, i.e. “the power should belong to the best and the most idealistic representatives of the Ukrainian nation”. Both Right Sector and Svoboda want to implement censorship in the press and education, to establish military and sport organizations for the youth, which would raise them in a patriotic spirit. Right Sector promises tolerance to the minorities which show their ‘respect’ to Ukrainian traditions and also help in the national struggle, otherwise they will be banished: “Our attitude to the people of other nationalities is sympathetic towards those who help us in our struggle for the national state; neutral to those, who do not prevent our fight for the right to be masters on our own land; and hostile towards those who counteract the struggle for Ukrainian national revival…”[4]

Svoboda claims that only people of the Ukrainian nationality can be citizens of Ukraine. Non-Ukrainians should pass a history and language proficiency exam to obtain Ukrainian citizenship. But most importantly, both parties argue for the mandatory record of nationality in the national ID. Hence, both projects do not guarantee tolerance either to the Jews or to other minorities, while any disagreement with the policies of the party could lead to accusations of disrespect towards Ukrainian nation and consequent persecutions. Moreover, the “nationality paragraph” in the national ID card would help to detect non-Ukrainians and control them more effectively.[5]

However, following the expression of Ukrainian sociologist Vyacheslav Likhachev, “these signals have not become an alert yet”,[6] as far as the support of ultra-right parties in Ukraine decreased dramatically in the last two years. After its success in the middle 2000s, Svoboda occupied only 6 chairs in the Parliament, when Right Sector got only one chair on the last elections in 2014. Nevertheless, the rate of ant-Semitic incidents in Ukraine grew rapidly from 9 in 2012 to 22 in 2015.[7] These numbers include the incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism (desecration of cemeteries and Holocaust memorials) and the acts of violence as well. Interestingly, the majority of the incidents happened not in the ‘nationalist’ Western Ukraine, but it the Center of the country.[8]

These phenomena are not as contradictory as they look; they can be explained by the new dynamic in the Ukrainian political sphere, when the mild right-wing agenda has been implemented and legitimized in the official public sphere, the most radical and unpopular nationalist ideas were left for the right-wing parties and organizations. In fact, members of the right-wing Ukrainian political parties act in the framework settled by their organizations (they also control the most blatant acts of aggression), while the disorganized radical groups (either Ukrainian or Russia-oriented) turn their frustration towards Jews.

Ukrainian officials are also playing with nationalist populism, which is nourished on a fertile soil of the conflict on the East. The creation and development of Ukrainian historical narrative, oriented on the national struggle seized to be a solely right-wing prerogative, while nationalist idols like Simon Petliura, Stepan Bandera, Roman Shukhevych and other personalities, which have very negative reputation in the Jewish tradition, now have become almost untouchable heroes of the national pantheon.

In May 2016 Ukraine for the first time held an official one-day mourning for an assassination of Simon Petliura, a Ukrainian nationalist politician, who was killed by a Jewish anarchist Sholom Schwartzbard  in 1926 for the alleged support of anti-Jewish pogroms, perpetrated by his troops during the Civil war in Ukraine. This better-late-than-never move of commemoration of the deceased nationalist hero was only one point on the long ‘de-communization process’, performed in Ukraine by new national elites who took power in their hands after the Maidan.

This process also included the adoption of two highly controversial legislation acts, entitled About condemnation of Communist and National-Socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes in Ukraine and ban on propaganda of their symbols[9], and About legal status and honoring the memory of fighter for independence of Ukraine in the 20th century[10]. These acts were signed by the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko on 15 May, 2015, alongside two other documents from the ‘de-communization package’, and their highly tendentious agenda attracted much criticism for whitewashing Ukrainian nationalists, who collaborated with the Nazis.

In the case of the first act, condemnation of National-Socialist symbols affected only the heritage of German Nazism, not threatening neo-Nazi Ukrainian groups; the second law declared that the members of UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army, blamed for anti-Polish and anti-Jewish atrocities during World War II) alongside the number other nationalist groups, were the heroic fighters for independence of Ukraine, and questioning their activities (or ‘dishonoring attitude’ towards them, as it is said in the body of the document, Part 6, Division 1) is against the law. The evaluation of these laws becomes even more disputable, given that the latter act was initiated by Yuri Shukhevych, the son of the UPA leader Roman Shukhevych and also the founder of UNA-UNSO; Shukhevych Jr. also contributed to the elaboration of the anti-Communist/National-Socialist law, alongside members of other Ukrainian parties, like the Radical Party of Oleh Liashko or conservative Samopomich.

As we can see, centrist political powers fully embraced nationalist agenda, collaborating with the right-wingers in the populist moves of ‘de-communization’ and glorification of the controversial historical figures, without any critical evaluation of their deeds. New Ukrainian national historic narrative is focused on the idea of a victimized nation, constantly threatened by is neighbors and Russia in particular (in its tsarist, Communist and modern incarnations alike). Surprisingly, on the wave of nationalist sentiments, which was not always Jewish-friendly, Ukraine found its inspiration in Israeli internal and external policy.

Popular media frequently compared Ukraine, battling with Russian forces inside and outside of the country, to Israel, who managed to survive in a long battle with the Arab countries. Countless ‘military experts’ called to follow the Israeli example and treat the internal and external enemies with an iron fist. This tendency is even more astonishing given that Russia is one of the biggest economic partners of Israel and many local right-wingers see in Putin an exemplary leader, who is strong enough not to obey the will of the EU and the United States.

Nevertheless, on December 2015 Petro Poroshenko visited Israel and alongside the official meetings with the officials and a tour to the Holocaust memorial in Yad Vashem, he delivered a speech in the Israeli Parliament. His speech exposed all the contradictions of the modern Ukrainian political discourse and its inability to deal with the disputable Jewish-Ukrainian historical issues.

First of all, Poroshenko named several Zionist activists and Israeli politicians, who were born in Ukraine, like the ideologist of Zionism Ze’ev Jabotinski, or the fifth Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir. He argued that Jews and Ukrainians had a thousand years long history of cooperation (sic!), while living side-by-side. Poroshenko claimed that the two nations shared the same problem of statelessness and struggled for the creation and preservation of their national homeland. This entirely positive picture had only one dark spot, in particular “collaborators who, unfortunately, were the typical phenomenon for all the European countries, occupied by the Nazis […]. As soon as the Independent Ukraine appeared, its authorities apologized for the crimes, committed by certain Ukrainians in the years of the Holocaust”[11].

From these words it is clear that Poroshenko is reluctant to call those “certain Ukrainian collaborators” by name, while the Israeli side certainly knows whom he is talking about. Still, the new law About legal status and honoring the memory of fighter for independence of Ukraine… does not allow him to question the deeds of Ukrainian nationalists and their supporters openly. Consequently, all his apologies looked insincere, as well as his tendentious comparison of the Holodomor and the Holocaust. Poroshenko also shared a story of a great friendship between Soviet Zionist activist Natan Sharansky and some Ukrainian nationalist when both of them were serving a sentence in a Soviet prison.

Eventually he comes to the conclusion that Jewish and Ukrainian nationalisms are two related ideologies (which is not far from the truth). Therefore, according to Poroshenko, all the clashes between the Jews and the Ukrainians are inspired by Kremlin and the Communists. He finishes his speech with the expected comparison of the Ukrainian army and the Israeli Defense Forces: “The topic of Israeli economics, defense, medical care and science are very popular in the Ukrainian press. Our biggest interest and sympathy now belongs to the IDF – Israeli Defense Forces. Nowadays Ukraine has to solve the problems, identical to those which Israel faced few decades ago. Your experience is incredibly important and useful for Ukraine”.

Poroshenko and his spouse Maryna visiting the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel
Poroshenko and his spouse Maryna visiting the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel

Apparently, the Israeli example was picked because the Israelis managed to build a one-nation country, which fits the ideal of a national state, currently followed by the Ukrainian political elites. However, in his speech Poroshenko unwillingly admits that the military operation on the East of Ukraine is comparable to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. He is not interested in the particularities of the Israeli case and he seems completely ignorant about all the criticism of Israeli politics. His main task was to prove Europe that Ukrainian nationalism is not anti-Semitic, and his apologies for the collaboration aim the same target. Still, his constant references to the Communist oppression show that the Ukrainian side found an ultimate scapegoat to avoid any responsibility for its own deeds.

Summing up, it is important to point out that the dynamic of the Ukrainian political process shows a shift to the nationalist agenda, and the gradual displacement of the right-wing groups to the margins. Ukrainian struggle for independence is proclaimed an ultimate goal, and the people who allegedly contributed to it are glorified despite the crimes they might have committed. Therefore, official political discourse embraced the nationalist heroes, like Bandera and Shukhevych, dragging them from the political right to the center. In this situation right-wing parties lose their uniqueness, but simultaneously they became undistinguishable from the political mainstream and, as a consequence – normal and acceptable. Hence, the future of the Jews in Ukraine is still uncertain.

After the first year of excitement, Ukrainian Jews face a rise of anti-Semitism and total reluctance of the Ukrainian officials to discuss controversial topics of common history. Moreover, the new ‘anti-Communist’ laws, which have been adopted in an attempt to nurture Ukrainian nationalist sentiments, make this dialogue even less possible. On the other hand, two main Ukrainian right-wing parties keep a destructive anti-Semitic potential already in their programs, despite all the promises of tolerance to the Jews. And finally, the recent interest to Israel from the Ukrainian side is nothing but a search for moral legitimization and political precedent, which can help the new Ukrainian political powers survive the storm.


[1] Gold, Michail, “The signals have not become an alert yet. The Interview with Vyacheslav Likhachev”, Hadashot (February, 2016. #2 (225),

[2] Andrusechko, Petro,”The Tyagnybok’s way to Svoboda”, Ukrayinsky Zhurnal,

[3] Grigoriev Illia, “If the anti-Semitism is discussed, it is in someone’s interests. The Interview with Josef Zissels”, Hadashot (April 2014, #4),

[4] Pravy Sector. The Program of the Party,

[5] Svoboda. The Program of the Party

[6] Gold, Michail, “The signals have not become an alert yet. The Intervie with Vyacheslav Likhachov ”, Hadashot (February, 2016. #2 (225)

[7] Likhachov, Vyacheslav, Antisemitism in Ukraine, 2015,

[8] Ibid

[9] About condemnation of Communist and National-Socialist (Nazi) totalitarian regimes in Ukraine and ban on propaganda of their symbols,

[10] About legal status and honoring the memory of fighter for independence of Ukraine in the 20th century,

[11] The Speech of the President of Ukraine in Knesset,

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