KIEV, Ukraine (JTA) – Facing strong criticism by Jewish leaders for his government’s silence on a recent uptick in anti-Semitic attacks, Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko met with Jewish leaders to assuage their fears and affirm his commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.
He did so partly by blaming “external forces” interested in destabilizing Ukraine, singling out Russia.
In the past few weeks, Jews in Ukraine have been attacked and beaten, a Chabad house was set on fire, and mass rallies were held across the country celebrating the government’s honor of a World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist who fought alongside the Nazis. Some of those rallies included anti-Semitic elements.
“We should work in an atmosphere of understanding and respect,” Yuschenko told the community leaders Monday.
Also attending the meeting were the prosecutor general, the interior minister and the head of Ukraine’s secret service, the SBU.
SBU chief Valentin Nalivaichenko said authorities had found the culprits in the arson case – members of a “Eurasian gang” from Russia who wanted to intensify interethnic tensions in Ukraine. Nalivaychenko said the same gang probably was behind three other recent attacks on rabbis in different Ukrainian cities.
Yuschenko pledged to spare no effort to free Ukraine of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and hostility toward foreigners.
Josef Zissels, head of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations in Ukraine, or Vaad, said the violence could not be blamed solely on Russia.
“I also believe that this is a manifestation of some Russian influences, but we also must take into account local factors,” he said.
As to the response by authorities to the attacks, Zissels said, “I am not satisfied with the SBU representatives’ reaction because I don’t see them as sufficiently competent.”
Yuschenko criticized law-enforcement agencies for their lackluster response to the recent attacks in Ukraine, which have included assaults on blacks, Asians and Arabs in addition to Jews.
The meeting with Yuschenko was scheduled hastily after European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor canceled plans to attend a Ukrainian government ceremony honoring the Jewish Red Army commander who liberated Auschwitz, the late Maj. Anatoly Shapiro.
Kantor was protesting the government’s silence on anti-Semitism and its decision to award the same medal, the Hero of Ukraine, to Gen. Roman Shukhevich, the Ukrainian nationalist leader who fought alongside the Nazis.
On Monday, Ukrainian government officials explained that the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or UPA, which Shukhevich led until he was killed in combat, did not collaborate with the Nazis and that such stories were misinformation spread by communists, pro-Russian radicals and years of Soviet propaganda.
Yuschenko acknowledged that some of the recent celebrations honoring Shukhevich included anti-Semitic “provocations” but said UPA veterans were not behind them.
“Honoring the UPA is a controversial issue, and we must take into account all aspects of the problem,” Vadim Rabinovich, leader of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, told JTA.
At the meeting, Jewish representatives called on the Ukrainian government to step up efforts to educate younger generations about the Holocaust and the truth of what the UPA did.
Yuschenko has made several public statements condemning anti-Semitism since he took office in January 2005, but Jewish leaders say authorities have failed when it comes to actually fighting anti-Semitic manifestations in the country.
“It’s important to find out who’s responsible, but it’s just as important to make sure that these things don’t continue to occur,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, which advocates for Jews in the former Soviet Union. “The next step is to take concrete action.”
Aleksandr Feldman, president of the Jewish Foundation of Ukraine, said he proposed at the meeting that the president establish an agency to fight xenophobia and anti-Semitism.
“This meeting gives birth to hopes that President Yuschenko will help to solve the problems of ethnic minorities in Ukraine,” Feldman said afterward. “The president said that we are one single political nation. Now it is very important to translate these words into reality.”
JTA associate editor Uriel Heilman contributed to this report from New York.