KIEV, Ukraine (Nov. 29)
Some Ukrainian Jews are taking to the streets, joining fellow citizens in protesting what they see as a fraudulent election. But leaders of Jewish organizations in Ukraine are trying to stay neutral amid the ongoing wave of civil protests that broke out last week after official results showed that the government-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, defeated Viktor Yuschenko by 49 percent to 46 percent in the Nov. 21 vote for president.
Since that time, some 200,000 pro-Yuschenko protesters have rallied in the streets of Kiev protesting the results. Yuschenko has called for new elections to be held next month, an idea that Yanukovich’s mentor, President Leonid Kuchma, endorsed Monday.
Ukraine’s Supreme Court was scheduled to rule this week on Yuschenko’s petition seeking to overturn the election results.
Most observers believe Ukrainian Jews split their vote in the election, though there is no credible data on the matter.
But in Kiev and in cities throughout western Ukraine, some Jews took to the streets in support of Yuschenko.
Among those who gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square to bolster the opposition candidate were several younger Jews.
Sonya Illich, 21, a Jewish student from Kiev, said she favored Yuschenko “because he supports young people and democracy.
“Jewish life in Ukraine will be better under his presidency,” she added.
Yuschenko ran on a pro-human rights platform and is seen as favoring closer ties to the West. During the campaign, some worried that he was slow to criticize supporters who expressed anti-Semitic views.
Meanwhile, Jewish officials are trying to remain above the fray.
“The Jewish community is not talking sides in what’s going on, thank God,” said Josef Zissels, a longtime community leader in Kiev who backs Yuschenko.
Before the vote, leaders of major Jewish organizations agreed that “we should not come out with a unified opinion on the election situation,” said Zissels, who heads the Va’ad, one of the umbrella groups of Ukraine’s estimated 250,000 to 500,000 Jews.
Zissels said the neutrality of organized Jewry was vitally important because the “situation remains unpredictable,” and taking sides could alienate whichever candidate becomes the leader.
Jewish politicians and public figures are present in both camps, and the roughly dozen Jewish members of Parliament are divided almost equally.
While Jewish institutions tried to stay neutral, some found themselves caught up in the whirlwind of events. The Central Synagogue in downtown Kiev was providing protesters with free food and warm clothing.
“This is a charitable, not a political, action,” said Moshe Reuven Azman, the synagogue’s rabbi.
The shul, also known locally as the Brodsky Synagogue, offered people who came from other cities free accommodation in its building, Azman said. He said he was doing so in order to support tranquility in the society.
“We need peace in Ukraine and we are praying for peace,” he said.
Meanwhile, some cities in western Ukrainian, Yuschenko’s stronghold, saw isolated cases of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
On Nov. 25, vandals drew swastikas and anti-Semitic and anti-Russian slogans on the building of the Russian Cultural Center in Lvov.
Some Yanukovich supporters who came to Kiev from eastern Ukraine expressed anti-Semitic views during interviews with a reporter at their camp at Kiev’s Dynamo Stadium. Some of them threatened to “teach a lesson to kikes,” a Kiev newspaper reported.
The intensifying standoff between authorities and opposition forces over the allegedly falsified presidential vote has affected Kiev businesses and their employees, many of whom have answered opposition calls by joining protest rallies and halting operations.
“We are working,” said Volodya Mann, a Jewish computer programmer for a local information technology company. “But only about one-third of our staff is in the office and two-thirds are always at the rally, and we change shifts.”
Some Jewish leaders, concerned for the safety of their organizations during the days of protest, closed operations until the dust settles.
Osik Akselrud, director of Hillel in Ukraine, said he ordered some of the organization’s offices closed this week, including its branch in the eastern city of Kharkov. That branch office is in Kharkov’s central square, where a standoff between supporters of the two candidates is taking place.
“I’m asking everyone not to go anywhere, not to take part in this and sit at home quietly,” said Akselrud, explaining that he is concerned about the personal safety of Jewish students.
But it was difficult to get his message across, he said.
“The majority of those who are in the streets are young people, and they are enjoying playing revolution,” Akselrud said.
He said he hopes Jews will manage to stay in the shadows, and that anti-Semitism won’t become an issue.
“But this isn’t guaranteed at all,” he said. “This is like sitting on a powder keg.”
(JTA correspondent Lev Krichevsky in Moscow contributed to this report.)