Across the Former Soviet Union Dispute over Babi Yar Escalates As Jewish Leader Declared Non Grata

A thorn in the side of the authorities during Soviet days, Jewish community representative Josef Zissels is now pricking Ukrainian Jewish leaders — so much so that they’ve declared him persona non grata.

“The council unanimously considers that Mr. Zissels’ activities have brought irreparable harm to the authority, unity and integrity of the Jewish community of Ukraine, and strongly condemns it,” the declaration reads, adding that his activity also “promotes anti-Semitism and interethnic intolerance.”

At issue is Zissels’ lobbying against a memorial and community center planned for Babi Yar, the ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where 33,000 Jews were slaughtered in September 1941.

Formed at the beginning of 2003, the Council of Leaders is composed of a small number of individuals who wield a big influence in Ukrainian Jewish affairs. They include the chief rabbi of Ukraine, Ya’akov Dov Bleich; the chief rabbi of Kiev, Moshe-Reuven Azman; the president of the Jewish Foundation of Ukraine, Alexander Feldman; and Osik Akselrud, Hillel’s regional director in Ukraine.

The council is designed to bring together representatives of the various groups representing Ukraine’s Jewish community, which today numbers from 250,000 to 500,000.

The council leaders support the construction of the multimillion-dollar Heritage complex memorial and center, funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and planned for Babi Yar.

Zissels has been among the most vocal opponents of the project, arguing that the “mass grave” that is Babi Yar is no place for a community center. He was instrumental in taking the debate public in the spring of 2002.

Since members of other minority groups also were killed at Babi Yar, any memorial should be multiethnic in nature, Zissels and other critics argue.

Protest letters have included signatures of people from a number of ethnic groups, including Armenians and Roma, or gypsies. A number of non-Jewish representatives participated in the inaugural news conference this spring of a committee opposing the memorial, of which Zissels is a member.

Council members view Zissels’ tactics as a betrayal of trust and tradition.

“The declaration is a statement being made by the Jewish leadership of Kiev to protest the action of someone who considers himself a leader in the community, but who is going against Jewish tradition and the tradition of Jewish leaders throughout our history,” Bleich said. “In our opinion, it is inciting non-Jewish organizations against the Jewish community.”

Eduard Dolinsky, a council member and executive director of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, stressed the secular and non-binding nature of the June 24 declaration.

“We are a community council, so this has nothing in common with Jewish religious law,” Dolinsky said. “It is rather a recommendation to stop relations with Zissels.”

In fact, it was Zissels who earlier this year proposed that his actions be judged by a rabbinical court.

“Our community has no tradition of resolving such conflicts and, in such a vacuum, I turned to tradition,” Zissels said. “Most rabbis are good and honest people.”

The requisite three rabbis were selected, but the rabbinical court has yet to meet because of a lack of precedent for how to proceed.

It’s not clear what effect, if any, the Council of Leaders’ declaration will have on Zissels. In addition to serving as chairman of the Va’ad umbrella group of community organizations, he also serves as the Ukraine representative of the Kazakhstan-based Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, or EAJC.

Dolinsky said the Council of Leaders is appealing to international donor organizations to sever their ties with Zissels. EAJC executives did not respond to requests for comment from JTA.

Martin Horowitz, director of the Jewish Community Development Fund run by the New York-based American Jewish World Service, said his organization would continue to deal with Zissels and the welfare, education and social programs administered by organizations such as the Va’ad.

“This organization has known and worked with Mr. Zissels for 10 years, and will continue to do so in future,” Horowitz wrote in an e-mail interview with JTA. “As someone who knows Mr. Zissels and most of the people associated with this recently created ‘Council of Leaders,’ I find it very sad to see one small group of Jewish activists attempting to ‘excommunicate’ another of Josef Zissels’ stature.”

For his part, Bleich said he sees the declaration more as a warning to Zissels than as an excommunication. Like Dolinsky, Bleich said Zissels had gone so far in his quest to find allies against the Heritage project that at times he associated with groups that council members call anti-Semitic, such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.

“The issue is what is permissible for a Jewish leader to do in the community,” Bleich said. “All I expect is that Zissels should understand that there are limits to everything, and that he went over the limit.”

In the meantime, almost two years after the Babi Yar groundbreaking ceremony, the Heritage steering committee held a news conference on July 9 to announce the final concept design by Pelzner Architects of Israel.

The JDC’s representative for central and western Ukraine, Volodymyr Glozman, said plans are going forward, and committee member Arkady Monastirsky, general director of the Jewish Foundation of Ukraine, said construction could begin in the fall.

Vitaly Nakmanovich disagrees. As spokesman for the Community Committee for the Immortalization of the Memory of the Victims of Babi Yar, the anti-Heritage group, Nakmanovich said the government has yet to approve the project because of zoning laws and the integrity of the existing Babi Yar reserve.

He produced a copy of an April 24 letter in which Kiev’s deputy mayor, Mikola Pozhnanov, seeks to pass responsibility for a decision to his counterparts in the federal administration.

“The city administration is not authorized to make such a decision,” Pozhnanov wrote. “In order to clarify the matter, we ask you to consider the situation and decide whether it is legal to build the Heritage cultural center on the territory of Babi Yar.”

Council members like Dolinsky warn that the delays and infighting could ultimately sink the project. That would be fine with Zissels, who argues that the community center portion of the complex must be located in another part of Kiev.

He continues to claim that those who back the project are blinded by its monetary value.

“I think we should remind ourselves of the case from Jewish history when the Jews created an idol for themselves,” he said. “This center is also kind of like a golden calf.”

Such sentiments are unlikely to win Zissels reconciliation with the Council of Leaders any time soon.

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