Joseph Zisels answers to questions editor of international Jewish news agency JNS.org.
Alina Dain Sharon
What is your official stance on the mass protests as the Chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations (VAAD) Ukraine?
First of all, let me say that I have only one position in virtually all matters of public interest and in it are combined both the official and unofficial perspectives. In the case where a non-democratic government is deceiving its people and its negotiation partners, I believe mass citizen protests to be fully justified, even campaigns of civil disobedience, with only one condition: these protests should not directly contradict the Constitution.
Do you think that the Ukrainian government made the correct or the wrong decision in not signing the agreement with the EU? Why?
I would not focus on the actions of the government, because in Ukraine all the major decisions are made by one person – the president. It is the president who is responsible for decisions, the government is only following the will of the president.
The question is not whether that was the correct decision. I fully admit that there may be circumstances that do not allow the signing of an important agreement right now, and the signing must be postponed to a later date.
The question is different. The President of Ukraine was apparently not planning to sign an agreement with the EU at all but simply mislead everyone domestically, as well as in the European Union and Russia while trying to bargain for more assistance for his policies. I, for example, knew about the real scenario of not signing the agreement with the EU two months before the Vilnius Summit.
I am convinced Ukraine is in dire need of signing this agreement with the EU for the sake of its future. Ukraine, because of its historical and other various characteristics, has a dualistic identity: a European component prevails in half the population and a European component prevails in the other half.
I am sure that successive, slow steps to integrate Ukraine into the space which identifies itself as European will eventually weaken this duality and allow Ukraine to finally break the chain of tragedies in its history and become a stable European country. All this is very difficult, but Ukraine finally has the chance to live a normal, dignified economic and democratic life like the European countries with all their advantages and disadvantages.
Thus, it is not the decision which should be assessed in terms of whether it was correct or not. The question must be posed differently: was it right to deceive everyone, and above all, one’s own people by imitating a desire to sign an agreement with the EU. I am sure the question is rhetorical.
Do you believe that it would be best for the Ukrainian Jewish community if the country agrees to the EU’s proposition or if it becomes part of the Eurasian Customs Union? Why?
About 20 years ago in one of my articles I wrote an epigraph: “There cannot be a prosperous community in a dysfunctional country.”
From my previous answer it is clear that I consider it best in all respects for Ukraine to join the EU: for Ukraine as a whole, for its minorities, and in particular for Jews in Ukraine. I believe that a decision to enter the Eurasian Customs Union would be much worse.
First of all, when evaluating the opinion of the Jewish community (and within the community there’s a multitude of opinions, including completely contradictory ones), I believe it is necessary to assess the overall context. Ukrainian Jews cannot solve their issues and problems if they abstract themselves from Ukraine as a whole. Thus, the Jews have to ask themselves first and foremost about what is best for Ukraine and its citizens: EU or EATC, and not to listen so much to their own subjective opinions on this issue but to the opinion of the majority of the citizens of Ukraine, to what Ukrainians want. Today, many sociological studies already show a marked predominance of Ukrainian citizens seeking to enter the EU over the EATC, and every year this gulf is widening.
Comparing the life of Jewish communities in the EU and EATC, we should note that the picture is ambiguous: the Jewish communities in the EATC today have no particularly acute problems with anti-Semitism and discrimination and they can generally practice their culture and religion without interference, but the underdeveloped economic level of EATC countries and the lack of legal framework do not allow these communities to solve problems inherent to the preservation of their cultural heritage, restitution of Jewish communal and private property, collection of funds for its activities – issues that are quite successfully resolved in the Eastern European countries that have joined the EU in the last 20 years.
The factor of instability of the political and economic situation in the EATC is also important, as well as the danger of the use of the “Jewish card” by authoritarian regimes in the EATC, especially in pre-election periods. Ukrainian Jews – though the same goes for Jews resident in other countries – should address their issues and problems while taking into account many important factors, but not solely for reasons of national egoism.
I know that there are several Jewish organizations in Ukraine that may have differing positions on this issue. Which positions have you seen, not only in your own organization but in others, as well?
The existence of different opinions, in different organizations as well as within organizations, is an entirely natural process.
In authoritarian systems of the Eurasian space, including the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe, this is primarily a matter of the personal convictions and opinions of leaders of the various Jewish organizations. Only the presence of an equilibrium in this system of many organizations allows one to see the entire spectrum of opinions.
For example, after special militias engaged in the bloody dispersal of a peaceful rally in central Kiev on Saturday, November 30th, and the police beat at least 35 people, only one of all the 15-20 Ukrainian Jewish organizations, VAAD Ukraine, has condemned the use of force against peaceful demonstrators. Does this mean that other organizations support the use of force? Of course not!
In order to comprehend this complicated question, it is first of all necessary to understand the peculiarities of Jewish identity in the Diaspora societies (Galut) of the countries with remnants of a totalitarian and authoritarian past. Over the last several hundred years of life in such countries, Jews acquired special distinguishing features in their identity, because the form of Jewish identity is much more mobile than its content (laws, customs, religion).
This form itself depends largely on the surrounding society. Jews adapt it to conform to the predominant identity, i.e. adapt to survive.
In authoritarian, and even more so in the totalitarian conditions of the Eurasian space, the Jewish communities focused primarily on loyalty to the central imperial power (Emperor, Tzar, Sultan, General Secretary, President), thus often coming into conflict with the country’s social and national protest movements (in Poland, in Ukraine, the Baltic States, the South Caucasus).
Remnants of this identity are present in our communities even now, especially among the older generation. We try not to focus attention on these contradictions between generations and groups of different persuasions, because the community is primarily bound by ethnic and religious factors, not political and ideological. But sometimes, in the critical moments of history, Jews and their communities have to make the tough choice with whom they stand: with the authoritarian power or with the democratic part of their society that aspires to join European space, be it economic, political or even defense. We would not want such a choice to to put the community on the brink of a split, but I would like it even less if the community were to counterpose itself to the future of the country in which it lives rather comfortably.
Do you know that a significant amount of Jews is participating in the aforementioned protests?
Yes, the Jews of Ukraine participate in protests, though not as a community but as citizens of Ukraine who are tired of the cynical actions of the government, and they are not afraid, like the other hundreds of thousands of protesters, to publicly express these feelings and to reinforce them with protest actions. I myself, my ex-wife and youngest daughter participate in these protest actions, as do some of my Jewish friends and acquaintances.
Statistics cannot quantify Jewish participation in protests, as each person takes the decision to participate individually and comes in contact only with their relatives and friends. Jewish community structures do not call upon Jews to participate but do not dissuade them from it either, it’s a completely different part of civil life. I do not think that most of the 300 thousand members of the Ukrainian Jewish community participate in protests, but I believe, first, that the Jewish youth participate more often than older people, and, second, that as in other actions directed to democratize society, participation of Jews is disproportionately high.
For example, the Jewish population of Ukraine is about 0.7 % of the total population of Ukraine and at least 10 % of the members of the Ukrainian parliament have Jewish roots – i.e. they are part of the very same 300 000 that we count among the Jewish community, even if they do not advertise their Jewishness.
I am certain that in the eyes of conscientious Ukrainians even the small amount of Jews who are not afraid to participate in these mass acts of civil protests even out the greater part of the community, which does not participate in the Ukrainian people’s declaration of will.