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For Some Ukrainian Jews, Election Means a Different Kind of Identity

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Could Ukraine’s protracted presidential campaign become a turning point not just for the country’s democratic development but even for the identity of its Jewish community? “I’m an ethnic Jew and a part of the Ukrainian nation,” said Mikhail Frenkel, a Jewish journalist in Kiev.

“What we see today is the process of consolidation of the Ukrainian nation,” he said predicting that many Jews will be part of this process.

In a country that has seen hundreds of years of anti-Semitism — and where the concept of a multicultural identity is only beginning to make inroads — this concept is nothing short of revolutionary.

The opposition candidate, Viktor Yuschenko, claimed victory after earning an estimated 52 percent in Sunday’s revote. The campaign awakened Ukrainian society like no other development in the nation’s post-Communist history, leading to unprecedented civil protest in a country previously regarded as one of the most socially and politically stable countries of the former Soviet Union.

Particularly in Kiev and the major cities in Western Ukraine, Jews joined other Ukrainians in supporting the masses who took to the streets after the original presidential runoff Nov. 21, demanding free and fair elections and an end to cronyism.

“To be a Jew in modern Ukraine should mean to support the movement against the old corrupted regime, to support democracy and freedom of choice,” said Rudolf Mirsky, a Holocaust historian in Lvov.

Ukraine’s previous regime, headed by President Leonid Kuchma, was tainted by widespread charges of corruption. Sunday’s revote took place after the country’s Supreme Court overturned the victory of Kuchma’s protege, Viktor Yanukovich, in the Nov. 21 vote because of fraud.

For the country’s Jews, the crisis also highlighted the complexities of Jewish identity in a community that has lived through generations of anti-Semitism.

That complexity is compounded by the fact that many Ukrainian Jews come from mixed families, said a prominent sociologist who is himself the product of a mixed marriage.

“Who am I? It is very difficult for me to answer this question,” said Yevgeny Golovaha, vice-director of the Institute of Sociology at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

“I have a Ukrainian last name, a Jewish mother and Russian father. Russian language and culture are very close to me, and I’m proud to be a citizen of Ukraine.”

Many experts agree that despite 13 years of independence, Ukrainian Jews still are best understood through the prism of their Soviet-era experience.

In many ways, the decades of persecution fostered by the Communist regime succeeded in taking away Judaism for most Jews, replacing it with the pride of belonging to the Soviet Union. That pride translated into an identity with post-Communist Russia, the country that was the major power in the USSR.

While Jewish voters in Western countries generally support liberal slogans and candidates, many Ukrainian Jews — perhaps the majority — backed Yanukovich, who campaigned under anti-liberal, populist and pro-Russian slogans.

“Most Jews backed Yanukovich because he represented the Soviet regime,” said Vitaliy Nachmanovich, a journalist and head of the Babi Yar Memorial Committee in Kiev.

Some Jews also were worried by what they saw as Yuschenko’s reticence earlier in the campaign to criticize supporters who expressed anti-Semitic views, a perception that was stoked by his opponent.

With the median age of the country’s Jewish community believed to be older than 60, it’s not surprising that many Jews would long for a country that gave them pride and stability.

“These Jews were raised by the Soviet regime and many or probably even most of them want to come back to the Soviet times, with its system of social support,” said Alex Dukhovny, a Reform rabbi in Kiev.

Observers say many middle-aged and older Jews supported Yanukovich out of fear that his opponent would dismantle the final remnants of what reminded people of the Soviet Union, including its social welfare system.

Most of our veterans voted for Yanukovich not because he or his program is better for us,” said Semyon Nezhinsky, head of the Council of World War II Veterans at the Jewish Council of Ukraine. “We are nostalgic for the USSR, for our big country, and we fear any changes.”

But some Jews, especially younger and more educated ones, found it relatively easy to adjust to the post-Soviet Ukrainian reality, and they generally backed Yuschenko.

Avigdor Freidlis, 37, an actor from Kiev, said he feels more Ukrainian than Jewish and believes the majority of Jews soon will feel as he does.

“I think there will be no Jewish community in Ukraine in one or two generations,” he said. “Today many Jews are more Ukrainian than many ethnic Ukrainians.”

Observers say Ukraine’s 200,000 to 500,000 Jews fall into three categories.

The vast majority of Ukraine’s Jews are totally secular and “their Jewishness is on the periphery of their interests and lifestyle,” scholar Aleksandr Naiman said.

A tiny minority — estimated at 1 percent to 3 percent — are Orthodox. Most of them embraced Jewish tradition and observance only after the fall of communism.

The third category is those Jews who during the years of Ukrainian independence have acquired some taste of Jewish culture and tradition and occasionally take part in community-organized celebrations, but observe few Jewish traditions at home.

Golovaha, 54, said his family history serves as an example of recent Ukrainian Jewish history.

“My grandfather was the chairman of a synagogue; my mother taught Marxism at a university,” he said. “Like my father, I’m an atheist and a cosmopolitan. I’m a citizen of Ukraine and my ethnic identity is not that important for me.”

Some observers predict that if Ukraine succeeds in building a more transparent and democratic society, more Jews may want to build their future there.

“During the last weeks the entire world saw the maturity of Ukrainian democracy,” said Elena Pergamon, a Jewish Agency for Israel envoy on repatriation in Ukraine and Moldova.

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