Democratic Ukraine and the Struggle Against Anti-Semitism

Keynote address by NED President Carl Gershman at the Kyiv Jewish Forum

I want to thank Boris Lozhkin and the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine for inviting me to speak to you today.  This forum is taking place exactly five years after the “Thinking Together” conference that Tim Snyder and Leon Wielseltier organized here in Kyiv in the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas.  It was an historic moment, and I was honored to take part in that important demonstration of solidarity with Ukraine.

I said in my remarks to that conference that the Euromaidan revolution in 2014 was part of “a process by which Ukraine is becoming a democratic and united nation.”  I knew that Ukraine faced overwhelming challenges, since it had to defend itself against Russian aggression while simultaneously reforming a corrupt system that was still mired in the detritus of Soviet totalitarianism.  It was not at all clear that Ukraine could survive, let alone prevail.   But we all strongly believed at the time that Ukraine could succeed, especially after the heroic struggle on the Maidan.

A sign of hope for the future came from an unexpected quarter after Putin launched a vicious smear campaign, charging that the revolution was no more than a “rampage of reactionary, nationalist, and anti-Semitic forces.”  A group of more than two dozen “Jewish citizens of Ukraine,” as they proudly called themselves, wrote an open letter to Putin charging him with spreading “lies and slander.”  Even the most marginal of the nationalist groups, they said, “do not dare show anti-Semitism” because they are “well-controlled by civil society and the new Ukrainian government – which is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis who are encouraged by your security services.”  The only threat to Ukraine’s stability, they told Putin, “is coming from the Russian government, namely – from you personally,” and they concluded by “decisively” telling Putin to stop “destabilizing the situation in our country and to stop your attempts of delegitimizing the new Ukrainian government.”

The Jewish signatories of the open letter did not claim to speak for all the Jews of Ukraine.  Ukrainian Jews had diverse views on the current situation, they said, “but we live in a democratic country and can afford a difference of opinion.”  They added that “we have a great mutual understanding with the new government, and a partnership is in the works.”

The open letter to Putin from Ukrainian Jews had the effect of validating Ukraine’s new democracy.  Their voice carried special weight and credibility because they spoke for a minority that had suffered grievously in the past and could not countenance any illusions or wishful thinking about the threat of extremism and anti-Semitism.   If they felt confident that Ukraine was on the right path, then very likely it was.

Looking back over the past five years, we can also now say that they were right.  Ukraine is still in the midst of a difficult democratic transition, but it’s remarkable how far it has come on so many different fronts in such a short time.  As Alexander Motyl has noted, during the five years of Petro Poroshenko’s presidency, Ukraine built an army and fought the Russians and their proxies to a standstill; reformed the police and the banking sector; stabilized the currency; rationalized energy prices; devolved authority and resources to local government; won independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church; deepened political and economic ties with the West; and helped keep the E.U. and the U.S. united on continued sanctions against Russia.  All this has happened without any backtracking on democracy and liberal rights and freedoms, as has occurred in other countries in the region.  Civil society and independent media have remained strong, and along with 14 international missions and almost 100,000 local observers, they helped ensure that the recent presidential election was peaceful, free, and fair.

The election itself was emblematic of Ukraine’s extraordinary progress as a democracy.  The candidate of the far-right Svoboda party received just 1.6% of the vote in the first round, which confirmed what the signatories of the letter to Putin had said about the limited influence of radical nationalist groups.  President Poroshenko promptly and graciously conceded defeat, showing the world a model of democratic civility and restraint in contrast to Putin’s thuggish authoritarianism.  And the landslide victory of Volodymor Zelensky was extraordinary on so many different levels, leading him famously and appropriately to declare: “To the countries of the former Soviet Union: look at us, everything is possible.”  The fact that Zelensky’s Jewish background played “zero role” in the election, according to Igor Shchupak, an historian of the Holocaust from Dnipro, was an unintended yet still stinging rebuke to Putin.

Ukraine is now the only country outside of Israel where both the President and the Prime Minister are Jewish, and by one measure, according to a recent Pew survey, anti-Jewish attitudes in Ukraine are among the lowest in the region.  No one could have predicted such progress.  This is not a reason for complacency, and I know that minority problems persist in this country as they do elsewhere.  As the American Abolitionist Wendell Phillips once said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”  Still, the democratic changes that have taken place in Ukraine represent a welcome and important development, especially at a time when democracy in the world faces greater danger than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

As aptly stated by The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, a statement signed by more than 300 public intellectuals and democracy activists, “Liberal democracy is under threat, and all who cherish it must come to its defense.”  This crisis manifests itself in many ways: the rise of resurgent authoritarian powers like Russia and China; the backsliding of former democracies like the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, Venezuela, and Hungary; the growth of illiberal nationalism and populism in many established democracies; and the widespread erosion of belief in democratic values and in the efficacy of democratic institutions.

Since the state of Jewish security is often taken as a barometer for measuring the stability and well-being of a country or of the world more generally, it is not surprising that this crisis of democracy has been accompanied by a rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and throughout the world. Last September Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said in a debate on anti-Semitism in the British House of Lords that anti-Semitism becomes dangerous when three things happen: when it moves from the fringes of politics to the mainstream of a party and its leadership; when that party sees that its popularity with the general public is not thereby harmed; and when those who stand up to protest are vilified and abused for doing so.  “I never thought I would see this in my lifetime,” Rabbi Sacks said, but now all three of these factors exist in Britain.

He called anti-Semitism “the world’s oldest hatred,” saying that it’s “the hardest of all hatreds to defeat because, like a virus, it mutates.”  Speaking on this theme to the European Parliament in 2016, he explained that throughout history, “people have sought to justify anti-Semitism…by recourse to the highest source of authority available in the culture.  In the Middle Ages, it was religion.  So we had religious anti-Judaism.  In post-Enlightenment Europe it was science.  So we had…Nazi ideology, Social Darwinism and the so-called Scientific Study of Race.  Today the highest source of authority worldwide is human rights.  That is why Israel – the only fully functioning democracy in the Middle East with a free press and independent judiciary – is regularly accused of the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and attempted genocide.”

An example of this appalling development is that on March 18 in the UN Human Rights Council Israel was assaulted in seven biased reports and five hostile resolutions.  There was nothing presented to the Council on any other country in the world – not on Algeria, where the protests leading to the eventual ouster of the corrupt and repressive Bouteflika regime had begun a month earlier; not on China, where more than a million-and-a-half Muslim Uyghurs are being held in concentration camps and the Beijing regime is committing in Tibet what His Holiness the Dali Lama has called “cultural genocide;” not on Venezuela, where the economic and social implosion under the  illegitimate Maduro dictatorship has caused more than three million Venezuelans to  flee, ten percent of the country’s population; not on Cuba, which has been a totalitarian dictatorship for six decades and is now propping up the Maduro regime with twenty thousand troops and intelligence officers; and not on North Korea which is still the most closed and repressive country in the world, with a gulag that rivals the Stalinist model.  The list could go on – Syria, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and so forth.

Why is Israel being singled out, if not because the U.N. has been overtaken by a mutated version of historic anti-Semitism?  The great historian Walter Laqueur, who died last September at the age of 97, wrote in a book on anti-Semitism published a decade ago that “According to peace researchers, 25 million people were killed in internal conflicts since World War Two, of them 8,000 in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which ranks forty-sixth in the list of victims.  But Israel has been more often condemned by the United Nations and other international organizations than all other nations taken together.”  If this is not anti-Semitism, what else could it be?

Despite all the troubles that Ukraine has, and I know that there are many, what has happened here over the past five years stands out as a hopeful example of democratic progress at a very uncertain moment in world history.   There are positive changes taking place today in some other countries, such as Armenia, Ethiopia, and Malaysia, but the transitions there are fragile and have only just begun.  Ukraine is much farther along and seems able to sustain the progress that has been made.

This is extremely important, not just for Ukraine but for the entire post-communist region and the world.  At the “Thinking Together” conference five years ago, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt said that Ukraine was “the epicenter of the global struggle for democracy,” meaning that if Ukraine were to succeed in becoming an independent democracy, it would deter Putin’s reckless expansionism and even offer the prospect that Russia might become a more normal and democratic country.  This is a point that the late Zbigniew Brzezinski often made, saying that “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire.”  I and others at the “Thinking Together” conference also emphasized that the model of a democratic Ukraine would have a powerful democratizing influence in neighboring Russia.

The importance of Ukraine’s democratic experiment leads me to my final point, which is that the democratic opening that is underway may offer a new opportunity to confront in a critical way the traumatic legacy of the Holocaust in this country.  This is a subject that is still not well understood or thoroughly researched, though important work has been done by Father Patrick Desbois.  His seminal book, The Holocaust by Bullets, is based on interviews he conducted throughout the country with eyewitnesses to the mass killings, which began as the invading German army moved east in 1941 and its mobile killing units, the Einsatzgruppen, rounded up all the Jewish children, women, and men, shot them, and buried them in mass graves.  Desbois’ book documents the accounts of living eyewitnesses, records the locations of hundreds of gravesites, and also addresses the extremely fraught issue of Ukrainian participation in this gruesome process, most often under compulsion in Desbois’ view, though that is an issue on which there is great debate and disagreement.

I have thought long and hard about whether I should address this issue in my remarks today.  I know how sensitive and complex this issue is, that I speak as an outsider, and that I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Holocaust.  But Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, who has done pioneering work on the issue of remembering and memorializing the victims of the Holocaust in Ukraine, has encouraged me to speak about it.  With all due modesty, I think that there are four reasons why it’s appropriate for me to do so.

The first is that for 35 years I’ve led an institution – the National Endowment for Democracy – that has made support for democracy in Ukraine one of its chief priorities.  From the moment the Rukh was founded in 1989, and even before that, we’ve done whatever we could to aid the movement for human rights, democracy, and sovereign independence in Ukraine.  Our grants program supporting Ukrainian NGOs has totaled almost $60 million and was guided since 1987 by the late and beloved Nadia Diuk, who received the Order of Princess Olga from President Poroshenko before her death last January.  I feel almost a part of the Ukrainian struggle and therefore justified in speaking out about an issue of such importance to the well-being of the country.

The second reason is that I have spoken many times about the Holodomor, which Ukrainians regard as their own holocaust.  Speaking on the 50th anniversary of the Holodomor in 1983 as the US representative in the UN’s Third Committee, I called it one of the worst crimes of the twentieth century, “a disaster that claimed some four million lives and was the direct consequences of Stalin’s effort to…crush the nationally conscious Ukrainian peasantry.”  Significantly, the agenda item under which I spoke was “The Right of Peoples to Self-Determination.”  I made two follow-up interventions on the issue when the Soviet and Ukrainian representatives denied that the Holodomor had ever happened.  My concern about remembering the Holocaust does not involve any neglect of the horror of the Holodomor.

My third reason for speaking about the need to remember the Holocaust in Ukraine is that last August the rabbi of the synagogue I attend in Washington, Shmuel Herzfeld, led a delegation of thirty members of our congregation to Ukraine to visit Holocaust sites.  I became convinced that this is an issue that has been badly ignored, and that I needed to understand it better.  I’ve since talked about it with a number of people, including Nadia Diuk before her death, and my speaking about the issue today is part of this process of learning and understanding.

The final reason I’m speaking today about the Holocaust in Ukraine is that my father, who came to the United States with his family as an infant in 1900, was from Proskurov – now Khmelnytskyi – which is located along the path of the advancing Einsatzgruppen.  More than 9,500 Jews were murdered there.

Through Rabbi Baker and the Polish-American historian Jan Gross, I have established contact with Aleksandra Wroblewska, the coordinator of the Protecting Memory project that was initiated by the American Jewish Committee and is funded by the German Government through the Foundation Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe.

The project takes a number of important steps to memorialize the victims of the Nazi killing machine.  It seeks to work with local populations in Ukraine to identify gravesites; to establish information displays and pedagogical programs involving local teachers and their students; to link the sites to the local communities so that they can become a visible and meaningful part of the of the local geography and cultural memory; and to take coordinated actions to ensure the long-term protection of the sites and the proper remembrance of the people who were killed there.   Another objective of the pedagogical program is to make this history more available to a wider range of citizens as well as to travelers and visitors.

The Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies led by Anatoly Podolskiy has been the closest partner of the project for many years, and it has implemented much of the educational work and built up an important network of teachers.  Dedicated Ukrainian civil society activists, architects, and lawyers, whom Aleksandra calls “a great treasure,” have given the project energy and ideas.

Aleksandra has informed me that on June 18 and 19 the project will be dedicating three memorial sites of Roma who were murdered in the Zhytomyr region.  On June 20 two additional Holocaust sites will be unveiled in the same region, and the families of Holocaust survivors will join the ceremonies.  Memorial ceremonies for eleven other Holocaust gravesites will be held at nine different locations between September 13 and September 21.  Those wishing to attend the ceremonies or press-conference can register by sending an email to Aleksandra Wroblewska’s work account which you can obtain from the conference staff (

I asked Aleksandra what steps should be taken to carry this work forward, and she had five recommendations:

  • A history of the Holocaust for every village and town where the Jewish population was annihilated should be compiled and made available to the local communities;
  • Schools should establish long-term educational programs linked to the protection of the sites, and local teachers and leaders should be educated, supported, and put in a position to define their needs and goals;
  • The Ministry of Culture should take the sites under active protection and regulate the juridical questions related to land-use; this should be done as soon as possible, before the land is offered to private investors;
  • Criminal proceedings should be initiated against those who are destroying gravesites, which unfortunately is not uncommon;
  • And an institution should be established to coordinate these and other actions, possibly in cooperation with institutions in supporting countries.

The current moment may offer an opportunity for Ukraine to build up a new national narrative that includes the experience of all the national and religious groups, and that accepts that the Holocaust and the Holodomor are part of a common Ukrainian history.  That is an awesome challenge that brings to mind the famous moral insight of the Mishna sage Rabbi Tarfon, who said: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, now….You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

If Ukraine can take the next steps in meeting this challenge, I believe it will become a stronger and more united country, and that this will contribute to the moral renewal of our troubled world.