KIEV (Dec. 12)
In the run-up to Ukraine’s presidential re-vote, opposition candidate Viktor Yuschenko is taking steps to dispel fears among some Jews stemming from his political ties with Ukrainian nationalist groups. On Dec. 9, Yuschenko made a public appearance in Kiev’s Central Synagogue to light Chanukah candles.
Some 400 Jews packed the shul, known here as the Brodsky Synagogue, welcoming Yuschenko and his wife Katerina, along with two of the couple’s five children with an ovation.
In an interview with JTA that evening, Yuschenko — who has been suffering from a mystery ailment that reports now indicate was the result of a deliberate poisoning — said that should he win the upcoming election, slated for Dec. 26, he will make relations with Israel a priority.
“Under my presidency, the relations between Ukraine and the State of Israel will take a turn for the better,” Yuschenko told JTA.
Yuschenko’s shul visit marked the rare appearance of a top Ukrainian political leader at a synagogue ceremony.
Some leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish community, who had previously preferred not to publicize their political preferences during the election standoff that followed the contested Nov. 21 presidential runoff, praised Yuschenko for his public show of support to the community.
“This visit demonstrated Yuschenko’s human and political position and his respect toward the Jewish community,” said Eduard Dolinsky, executive director of the umbrella United Jewish Community of Ukraine.
Yuschenko is widely expected to win in the re-vote later this month in which he is slated to again face Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who is supported by the central authorities in this nation of 48 million.
The results of the Nov. 21 runoff — in which Yuschenko finished second to Yanukovich — were invalidated by Ukraine’s Supreme Court earlier this month due to allegations of widespread electoral fraud.
Jews were among thousands of Ukrainians who flocked to Kiev’s central square in the aftermath of the Nov. 21 runoff to protest what they believed were tainted election results.
Many Jewish voters had said they supported Yanukovich because they feared the anti-Semitism associated with some nationalist groups that are members of Yuschenko’s coalition.
Yuschenko’s Chanukah appearance is likely to allay some of these concerns and could influence the Jewish vote in the upcoming election, some Jewish experts believe.
“Some Jews have apprehensions about Yuschenko’s entourage, but his visit dispelled much of the fears,” said Mikhail Frenkel, a veteran Jewish journalist in Kiev and head of the Association of Jewish Media in Ukraine.
Jews who greeted Yuschenko in the shul last week were not shy about whom they supported. Many wore orange ribbons and scarves — orange being the symbol of Yuschenko’s campaign — in addition to badges reading “Yes, Yuschenko!”
For his part, Yuschenko sported a kipah, which Jewish officials said was a first among top Ukrainian political leaders.
The Jewish community of Kiev said it sent Chanukah invitations to both presidential contenders, but only Yuschenko responded. Community leaders said they did not know if Yanukovich intended to visit the synagogue during the holiday.
In his short address at the synagogue, Yuschenko said that Chanukah “demonstrates that nothing can prevent people from moving to freedom.”
He also spoke highly of the Jewish people and Israel.
“This was the great Jewish people who saved Jewish traditions, culture and revived the Jewish state,” he said.
He noted similarities between Israel and his own country’s movement for independence — a movement that many here believe has taken a step forward with the pro-opposition protests dubbed the “Orange Revolution.”
“Many pages of the history of Ukraine and the State of Israel are very similar,” Yuschenko said.
Yuschenko and his family were treated to some traditional Chanukah specialties at the shul including latkes and jelly donuts, and his wife conversed with Yael Azman, the wife of the shul’s rabbi, Moshe Reuven Azman, throughout most of the visit.
“We should respect the diversity of our world with different voices,” Yuschenko told the synagogue audience, adding that as president he will “always support different nationalities living in Ukraine.”
Responding to a question from JTA about the prospects of the restitution of former Jewish communal property — one of the most pressing issues for Ukraine’s Jewish community — Yuschenko said he will be guided by justice in dealing with the issue.
“Justice should be the dominant question in the issue of restitution of Jewish property,” he said. “The property must be returned to the owner.”