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Ukraine chief rabbi pushing for unity government to end crisis

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(JTA) — Ukraine’s chief rabbi is advocating the formation of a national unity government to resolve the country’s political crisis over its relationship with the European Union and Russia.

U.S.-born Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, head of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, told JTA on Monday that he was reaching out to opposition and government representatives in favor of unity within the framework of his involvement with the Uniting Ukraine committee — a forum for dialogue in civil society.

The committee was convened last week by Leonid Makarovych Kravchuk, the country’s first president after it gained independence from the former Soviet Union. Kravchuk invited Bleich to attend the forum, which includes senior government and opposition figures.

The forum seeks to ease the tensions that flared up last month after President Viktor Yanukovych suspended preparations for signing a European Union association agreement that would have eased the import of European products to Ukraine and set the stage for the relaxing of travel restrictions. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens have taken to the streets of Kiev in rallies that at times have turned into violent clashes with police.

Russia, which supplies 60 percent of Ukraine’s gas, has worked aggressively to derail the deal by imposing painful trade sanctions and threatening Ukraine with giant gas bills.

“If it is so important for Ukraine to enter the European Union, let the opposition come into government and discuss ways to deal with the Russian threat regarding the gas supply and closing the border for Ukrainian exports if Ukraine moves toward euro integration,” Bleich told JTA. “It is necessary for Ukrainians to pool their resources to avoid bankruptcy.”

Ukrainian Jewish leaders appeared split on the protests.

Rabbi Moshe Azman, Chabad’s chief rabbi in Ukraine, told JTA the protests are “dangerous for the Jewish community.” They are described as a legitimate and peaceful expression of the “desire of the vast majority of the Ukrainian society to […] integrate into the European civilization” by Joseph Zissels and Meylakh Sheykhet of the Ukraine Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, and the Union of Councils for the Jews in the Former Soviet Union, respectively.

Oleksandr Feldman, a Jewish lawmaker and president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, said that while the Jewish community must remain neutral, its members largely support euro integration.

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