An exchange of ambassadors between Ukraine and Israel is likely within two months, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk said this week.
Speaking before a gathering of Jewish businessmen and communal leaders at the end of a week of meetings in the United States, Kravchuk reiterated previous statements that ties with Israel are “Priority 1,” and will be put into place as soon as a suitable ambassador can be found.
Kravchuk also reiterated his government’s opposition to anti-Semitism, spelled out last October at Babi Yar shortly after his country declared independence, and his desire for good relations between Ukrainians and Jews, two peoples whose cultures he said are “intertwined.”
The reception on Monday was hosted by M&M Ferrous America, a company that is opening an office in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Several economic representatives of Ukraine attended.
“We would like you to assist in moving capital to Ukraine,” Kravchuk said.
Prominent at the reception were representatives of several Orthodox groups, who had nothing but praise for Ukraine’s support for their educational efforts in what was, until last August, a republic of the Soviet Union.
Rabbi Moshe Binenstock, of the World Council of Hasidei Breslov, presented a silver menorah to the Ukrainian leader, whom he thanked for granting “the biggest present he could give us”: open access to the gravesite of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of the Hasidic group.
GRAVE HAS GREAT SIGNIFICANCE FOR BRESLOV
Breslov Hasidim attach great spiritual value to the pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman’s grave, located in Umman, Ukraine. For decades, Breslov Hasidim traveled to Umman, sometimes clandestinely, sometimes after having been extorted for large bribes.
But under the Kravchuk regime, travel is free, and the Hasidim have been given wide access to the site.
“We’re going to build a whole project to fix the cemetery, to build a whole building over the grave,” said Binenstock, who flew in from Israel for the occasion.
Albert Reichmann, the Canadian billionaire whose troubled Olympia & York real estate company has been a leading story in the financial press of late, said he is indirectly involved in oil exploration elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
What brought him to the reception, though, was his involvement with a Jewish school in Kiev, which he said now has more than 500 students.
Leibel Surkis, whose name-tag identified him as the general director of Dynamo Atlantic, said his visits to Ukraine were occasioned by his efforts to establish a yeshiva in Berdichev. The town, home in the 18th century to the famed Rabbi Levy Yitzhak, now is home to 3,000 Jews. Surkis is a member of the Skverer Hasidic group, now based in upstate New York but originally from the Ukraine.
“We would like to see the renaissance of Jewish spirit and Jewish culture in Ukraine,” Kravchuk said. “We will do anything in our power, with respect to schools, newspapers, synagogues, cemeteries, shrines.
“Besides the golden gate of Kiev, we also had the gate of Jewry. Jewish craftsmen taught Ukrainians their art, their business. Taking a look at the history of Ukraine, you see much in common. The long-suffering Jewish people comparatively recently acquired their own state, the State of Israel, and the Ukrainian people have not had their own state for a long time.”
Kravchuk dealt circumspectly with the anti-Semitism that was banned by his government but remains prominent in Jewish historical memory.
“One detail I want to say about (our common) history — some was written by us, other was inspired by other people outside Ukraine. It’s very convenient for the empire to tilt one nation against the other,” he said.
Despite the consensus of those working on Jewish projects in Ukraine that the official policy is philo-Semitic, visitors to Ukraine report anti-Semitic reactions and catcalls from the Ukrainian population.
According to the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, university applicants are still required to indicate their ethnic identity from a list of “Ukrainian,” “Russian,” “Jewish,” or “other.”
In a meeting with the group on May 6, Kravchuk “promised to look into it,” according to Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils.