Monthly Report (April) on Jewish Life in FSU: an Overview by Vyacheslav Likhachev
The more time passes since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the greater are doubts about the new independent states as a common social and cultural space. It’s just impossible to generalize about the different processes taking place in Turkmenistan and Lithuania, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. The Baltic States, Ukraine, partly Moldova and Georgia are integrating slowly but steadily towards Europe. Russia and the states that failed to break out of its political and economic influence have successfully built a kind of “re-Soviet” version of the authoritarian kleptocracy. While Central Asian FSU states are increasingly being drawn into the orbit of Chinese economic and political influence.
All over the world, the Jewish Diaspora demonstrates a high level of international communal solidarity. The post-Soviet space is not an exception. Conscious efforts are constantly being made to preserve the existing ties and to establish new ones. Regional international organizations are active. The specific Jewish community of the former Soviet Union is united not so much by religious tradition as by language, culture, social origins, and common historical fate. Even during the Soviet times, when the leaders and key activists went together through an underground period, there was still this international communal solidarity. This continued on after the collapse of Soviet Union.
Thirty years ago, the Vaad of the USSR, an umbrella structure, was created with the aid of UCSJ. When the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, the Vaad was integrated into the Euro-Asian Jwish Congress (EAJC). In 2002 – 2013 the EAJC more or less successfully played a role of an international confederation of Jewish communities in the FSU. The JDC, JAFI, and Chabad came to the post-Soviet space during the 1990s and created a network of unified structures for providing services for the Jewish people. Such kind of community centers all over the post-Soviet space (including Saint Petersburg, Odessa, Almaty and Tbilisi) are radically different from those in other regions of the world. Researchers and students engaged in Jewish Studies from the entire Russian-speaking area used to gather every year in Moscow at the conferences and schools of the Center “Sefer” (http://sefer.ru). The Jewish intelligentsia in different countries, accustomed to the “fat” Soviet literary and art magazines, read with equal pleasure “Lechaim” (https://lechaim.ru/). The Jewish News Agency, http://booknik.ru/ and other similar web-sites created and maintained a single information space online.
However, over time, it became obvious that centrifugal trends are gaining more and more power. The centralized hierarchical system for organizing Jewish infrastructure had become a thing of the past. The younger generation in Georgia and Lithuania no longer speaks Russian sufficiently to continue to remain in a single Russian-speaking Jewish information space. The Chabad Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (FSU countries other than Russia) has increasingly become a nominal union. The Menorah Center in Dnipropetrovsk (Dniepro) has seriously challenged Moscow’s Marina Roshcha (Chabad's main campus) in its attempts to fulfill the symbolic role of the “post-Soviet Brooklyn”. Students from Kyiv and Lviv no longer need to come to Moscow and St. Petersburg to get a high-quality education in Jewish studies at the best humanitarian universities and in the Ukrainian language. It turned out to be quite realistic to participate in Israeli academic internships without the mediation of the Sefer Center. The number of history teachers who visited Yad Vashem not through the Russian Holocaust Foundation (http://holocf.ru/), but through the Dniepro Tkuma Institute (http://tkuma.dp.ua/) and the Kyiv-based Ukrainian Center for the Holocaust Studies (http://holocaust.Kyiv.ua/), grew. The Babiy Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (http://babynyar.org), looks at Jerusalem, Berlin and Washington as models for itself, and not at the Moscow Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center (https://www.jewish-museum.ru/).
The catalyst of this natural disintegration was, of course, Russia's aggression against Ukraine in 2014. The war contributed to the breakdown of ties between the two largest Jewish communities in the post-Soviet space. Ukrainian Jews, together with the whole of society, recognized themselves precisely as “Ukrainian”. They no longer want to think of themselves as a part of a single “post-Soviet”, “Russian” or “Russian-speaking” Jewry. Kremlin propaganda poured oil on the flames, actively using the “Jewish question” and speculations on anti-Semitism to justify armed aggression and occupation of part of the Ukrainian territories.
At the same time, in Russia no significant Jewish "players" are left who could be ready to represent publicly an alternative position to the official Kremlin discourse. As a result, Jewish communities with a desire to protect themselves from Kremlin propaganda have nearly cut ties with the Russian Jewish information environment. Such processes are actively going on not only in the post-Soviet space, but also in the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Israel, Germany, and North America.
The Jewish News Agency has now ceased to exist. It became disgusting to read “Lechaim” with its propagandist, anti-Ukrainian pamphlets in Kyiv and Khar’kiv. Books of “Lechaim” publishing house are no longer bought or brought from Moscow. Ukrainian scholars refused to participate in the Sefer conferences on Jewish Studies just because they didn't want to visit Russia any more. The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress did not get out of the deep crisis of 2014-2017. When Jews were taking sides in the Russian / Ukrainian conflict, the Congress (eajc.org) become a pro-Kremlin Israeli amutah (NGO). This preemption made it impossible for them to serve the Jewish Community of Russia and Ukraine.
Taking into account the context, does it make any sense to continue to follow what is happening in the Jewish community of the post-Soviet space? In our opinion – no doubt.
The common origin, culture, mentality, and partly language continue to be significant factors for the development of post-Soviet Jewry. You cannot leave the whole community at the mercy of the Kremlin propagandists, who claim to express the opinion of the Russian-speaking "compatriots." An alternative to creeping propaganda of the “Russian world” with a slight Jewish accent is necessary.
Looking to the Future
The post-Soviet Jewish community needs to integrate into the “big” world, into the Western civilization to which the USA and Israel belong. It is necessary to get out of the mire of the “re-Soviet” swamp, into which the Kremlin elites are being dragged – deeper, to the bottom, into the company of Iran, Syria and North Korea.
Freedom, not slavery has always been a central Jewish value. Equality before the law and a fair trial also, not a tyranny. Pluralism, not a dictatorship. Dignity, not humiliation.
These are the values of Modern Western civilization, based on the foundation of biblical commandments, also. The Jewish community is an integral part of it.
Our view of post-Soviet Jewish life is determined by these very values. Our focus is on Human Rights, culture, democracy, freedom and the support of the State of Israel. We hope our reviews will find a reader who shares our goals.
So, what was important in Jewish life all over the FSU from this perspective in April, 2019?
Victory of democracy and pluralism
● The most important news in the Jewish world in April were about the election of the president of Ukraine, which took place on April 21. More precisely, of course, it is not the elections themselves, but the fact that the ethnic Jew Volodymyr Zelensky won a convincing victory (73% of the vote). This is the first time that a Jew has been elected head of state in a free general election. Moreover, the Ukrainian government is currently also headed by an ethnic Jew, Volodymyr Groysman. In no other country in the world, except, of course, the State of Israel, has it ever been that both the president and the prime minister were Jews.
During the election campaign, it was repeatedly claimed that Igor Kolomoysky, a fugitive oligarch who is in sharp conflict with the current president, Petro Poroshenko, was behind Zelensky’s candidacy. Volodymyr Zelensky never emphasized his ethnic origin (although he did not hide it), and always answered evasively to questions about his religious affiliation. Igor Kolomoisky however, self-declared himself leader of the Jewish community of Ukraine. He even claimed that he and his entourage are convincing Zelensky to keep Sabbath.
Given the ambiguity of the reputation of Kolomoisky as a businessman, he is an ideal figure for an anti-Semitic narrative. He is accused of being an oligarch, accused of enrichment at the expense of tens of millions of Ukrainians (depositors of Privat-Bank), a media tycoon, who is promoting his candidate from abroad against the national leader defending his country from aggression. However, despite the bitter public debate, except for a couple of statements made by marginal personalities like the extravagant nationalistic showman Dmytro Korchinsky, the “Jewish” theme and the anti-Semitic claims were not exploited at all in agitation against Zelensky.
Of course, the most important thing to keep in mind is that these elections passed calmly and in accordance with the highest standards of honesty and transparency. Free will and civilized transit of power is an important achievement of the Ukrainian democracy, for which, five years ago, many Ukrainians quite literally gave their lives.
The Ukrainian elections vividly demonstrated the link between democracy, on the one hand, and tolerance, on the other. The free and multicultural Ukrainian nation has passed this exam perfectly.
Immediately after the elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Volodymyr Zelensky, congratulating him on his victory and inviting him to visit the Jewish state on an official visit (https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-congratulates-new-ukraine-president-invites-him-to-israel/).
Community life in the FSU
● On April 7, memorable events dedicated to the anniversary of the pogrom of 1903 took place in Chisinau (https://www.jcm.md/ru/all-news/zabytyj-pogrom).
● In the Dnieper, the City Council considered the issue of allocating a burial site at the Zaporozhske cemetery for members of the Jewish community in accordance with the rules, rituals and commandments of Judaism (https://dnepr.news/news/v-dnepre-planiruyut-vydelit-otdel-nyy-uchastok-dlya-evreyskogo-kladbischa ).
● David Rebi, the author of the only textbook and one of the last native speakers of the Krymchak Jewish language, died in Simferopol (http://www.newsru.co.il/world/22apr2019/krimchak_503.html).
Krymchaks is a name for a unique Türkic-speaking Jewish sub-ethnic group formed and historically lived in Crimea. Majority of the community were exterminated during the Holocaust. From the beginning of the XX century, following the Crimean Karaites, the national intelligentsia of the Krymchaks developed a modern model of a secular self-identity, according to which the Krymchaks are a separate original Turkic people. Currently, about two hundred Krymchaks remain in the territory of the peninsula under the Russian occupation. The rest of the representatives of this group – about 600 people – live in Israel today, but they do not constitute a separate community there and gradually lose a unique ethnic identity (http://library.jewseurasia.org/page70/news13498 ).
Culture, Arts and Humanities
● On April 4, in Chernivtsi, within the framework of the Days of Jewish Culture in Ukraine, the exhibition “Contemporary Art of Israel and Ukraine” took place (http://jewseurasia.org/page6/news63482.html).
● On April 5–26, an exhibition dedicated to the life and work of writer and artist Bruno Schulz was held at the Sholom Aleichem Museum in Kyiv (https://jewishnews.com.ua/community/v-muzee-sholom-alejxema-otkroetsya-xudozhestvennaya-vyistavka).
● On April 7, the Day of the Jewish Book was held in the Synagogue of St. Petersburg. It was a really large-scale educational event this year (https://lechaim.ru/federation/v-bolshoj-horalnoj-sinagoge-peterburga-proshel-den-evrejskoj-knigi/).
● On April 12–14, the International Conference “Civil Society, Digital Storytelling and the History of the 20th Century Jews in Ukraine” took place in Odessa (https://trans-history.org/uk/mizhnarodna-konferentsiya-gromadyanske-suspilstvo-digital-storytelling-ta-yevrejska-istoriya-hh-stolittya-v-ukrayini/).
● On April 17–26, research archaeological work was carried out on the territory of the old Jewish cemetery in Tallinn. Their goal was to clarify the data on the graves and the location of the foundation of the gate, which is necessary for further work on the reconstruction of the cemetery. Works have been commissioned by the city municipality and agreed with the Jewish community (https://www.tallinn.ee/rus/Uudis-Na-starom-evrejskom-kladbische-proshli-arheologicheskie-issledovanija ).
● The Lithuanian organization “Matseva” has completed the work on cataloging the old Jewish cemetery in Seyrayai (http://jewseurasia.org/page6/news63492.html ).
● In Moscow, in the new building of the Tretyakov Gallery on April 25, an exhibition of the artist Haim Sokol opened, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and the fighters against Nazism (https://tvkultura.ru/article/show/article_id/344078/).
● The Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies announced the establishment of an award for the best book on Jewish studies published in Ukraine (http://uajs.org.ua/sites/default/files/polozhennia_pro_premiiu_UAJS.pdf).
Manifestations of antisemitism
● The most serious manifestation of antisemitism in the post-Soviet space in April was the arson of the oldest Russian yeshiva Torat Hayim in Moscow on April 19, just before the start of the Seder (the ceremony dedicated to the beginning of Pesach). The back room where kosher products were stored burned out. The arsonists left graffiti: the words "death to the Jews", the neo-Nazi code "88", meaning "Heil Hitler", and the swastika (https://lechaim.ru/news/podzhog-i-antisemitskie-graffiti-v-ieshive-torat-haim/).
● In Kyiv, in April, acts of vandalism against information stands on the territory of the National Historical and Memorial Preserve Babiy Yar were recorded twice (http://jewseurasia.org/page6/news63611.html).