Ukrainian Foreign Minister Gennadi Udovenko is determined to dispel the notion that the rebirth of an independent Ukraine is a threat to Jews.
“Our government is committed to encouraging the rebirth of Jewish life here, just as for other living here,” Udovenko said in an interview over the weekend, on the eve of a two-day official visit to Israel.
“Of course, we have some ultra-ultranationalists, but they are not influential at all,” he said, turning to gaze on the glittering golden domes of Kiev’s Saint Sofia Cathedral, stone’s throw from his office.
“Ukraine is on the path toward democratic development, and this naturally includes legal respect for the rights of minorities,” said the 64-year-old Udovenko, who was named foreign minister last year by Ukraine’s reformist President Leonid Kuchma.
A former Soviet republic, Ukraine split from Moscow in 1991 and now in Europe’s fourth largest country.
Preparing for his visit to Israel this week, the minister said: “I would not be surprised to run into old friends, schoolmates, you know.”
“In the small town in southern Ukraine where I grew up, there were just 10 kids in my high school class — seven Jews and three Ukrainians. We never thought being one thing or the other was important.”
“Who knows — maybe some of my classmates are in Israel now,” he said during the hour-long interview.
Peering through his glasses at a paper in front of him, the foreign minister said official statistics show that about 480,000 Jews live in Ukraine, which is 0.9 percent of Ukraine’s roughly 52 million people.
“But these official statistics don’t tell everything,” he said. “We expect the Jewish population to rise in the next census, because in Soviet times people tried to hide being Jewish. Now there’s no reason for that.”
The foreign minister traced his concern over Ukraine’s image to a CBS “60 Minutes” segment aired in October that portrayed anti-Semitism as a serious problem in Ukraine.
Since that broadcast, Ukrainian officials, supported by some American Jewish leaders, have worked hard to present a different picture of Ukraine.
Among them is American-born Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, who has worked in Kiev for the past four years and who complained that his words were taken out of context in the broadcast.
Bleich told his reporter last month that CBS’ Morley Safer, who did the original report, has agreed to come back to Ukraine to take another look at conditions here.
The foreign minister’s view about the extent of anti-Semitism was echoed by Jewish sources in Kiev.
“You have a few hundred extremists, mostly in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, who parade around in paramilitary costumes. “They’re anti-Russian more than they’re anti-Jewish and don’t by any stretch of the imagination reflect the mainstream of Ukrainian society, which is very tolerant,” said the Kiev representative of an American Jewish charity, who asked not to be named.
An Israeli Embassy official also agreed that anti-Jewish extremism is a marginal phenomenon in Ukraine.
“I would like to see this case closed,” Udovenko said, referring to the “60 Minutes” piece.
The foreign minister said his personal support for Jewish causes dates back to the perestroika period of the late 1980s, when he was Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“I became friendly with many American Jewish leaders then, among them Shoshana Cardin [then head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations] and Rabbi Arthur Schneier [of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation].
“When the first newly built synagogue since Communist times opened in Kharkiv in 1990, I was there,” he said.
Since independence from Moscow in 1991, more than 26 synagogue buildings have been returned to Jewish communities in Ukraine and some 70 Jewish societies now exist in the country, Udovenko said.
“For anybody who remembers Soviet times, the change is unbelievable,” he said.
Kiev also has many reminders of the city’s pre-Soviet vibrant Jewish past.
Near Kreshatik, the city’s tree-lined main boulevard, stands the building where Sholom Aleichem, the great Yiddish writer, lived and worked before the Russian Revolution.
Just down the hill from the Foreign Ministry lies Podol, on the banks of the Dnieper River, which at the turn of the century was a bustling, largely Jewish quarter.
Udovenko is aware of that past, and its tragic aspects as a result of the Communist era and Nazi period. “Everyone here suffered in this century, both Ukrainians and Jews, but the Jews suffered more,” he said.
Now, he said, he wants to see a special relationship between Israel and Ukraine.
“I want to exchange ideas about this with my Israeli colleagues. It could take the form of economic cooperation in areas like agriculture or food processing or high-tech industries,” he said.
“And it should have a political aspect as well. The Middle East is on our southern flank, so we have a natural interest in stability there,” he said.
Ukraine, he added, is a strong supporter of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
He also invited Israel to play a role in “the triangular relationship” between Ukraine, Israel and Russia.
“These three countries have so much in common in terms of shared background. We want the Russians to come to see Ukraine as an independent country. That will take time. Maybe Israel can help them because Israel has so many Russian- speaking people.”
Ultranationalist politicians in Moscow such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky often argue that Russia should be the protector of Russian speakers living outside Russia, including Ukraine.
“Can you imagine if Russia declared it will protect the Russian-speaking population in Israel?” Udovenko asked. “It’s absurd, and the Russians should see that.”
During his visit to Israel, which began Monday night, Udovenko met with top Israeli officials.
At a meeting with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Tuesday, the two foreign ministers signed two agreements in commerce and tourism. Other bilateral agreements were also expected.
Peres expressed Israel’s willingness to increase economic, commercial and industrial cooperation with Ukraine. He offered to establish a model agricultural farm there and to send medical experts in accordance with the agreements the two countries sign.
Udovenko reiterated to Peres that Ukraine considers Israel a special partner. He said the relations are partially due to the 300,000 immigrants from Ukraine living in Israel.
The Ukrainian foreign minister also apparently expressed interest in Israel’s position regarding the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT has caused quite a controversy in recent months.
Since the disbanding of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has retained its arsenal of nuclear weapons.
But Peres rejected any similarity between the nuclear policies of the two nations. He pointed out the continuous nuclear threat that hangs over Israel, particularly from such countries as Iran and Iraq. He said, however, that once there is a comprehensive peace in the region, Israel will sign the NPT.
The Ukrainian also planned to visit Yad Vashem, Kibbutz Tsorah and Netanya. He was not expected to meet with any Palestinian representatives.
“We can’t wait to see Jerusalem,” said the foreign minister, who was being accompanied by his wife, Dina.
“We are Orthodox Christians, so for us it’s a very special place.”