KIEV, Ukraine (JTA) – Fresh from the controversy over shifting positions on the Armenia genocide, the Jews could be caught up in another controversy over genocide recognition.
This time the subject is the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, called Holodomor, which Ukrainian President Victor Yuschenko wants Israel to recognize as a genocide orchestrated by Josef Stalin against the Ukrainian people.
Yuschenko is expected to press the issue when he comes to Israel Nov. 14-15 for his first official visit to the Jewish state.
Israeli and Jewish officials, on the other hand, are more concerned with pressing Yuschenko to take a tougher line against the genocidal ambitions of Iran and against Syria, a major trading partner with Ukraine.
“We are waiting for Yuschenko to make a statement that Ukraine will not sell weapons to the conflict region,” said Josef Zissels, head of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations in Ukraine, or Vaad. Zissels is expected to accompany the president on his visit to Israel.
In 2005, Yuschenko confirmed that nuclear-capable cruise missiles were sold illegally to Iran under Ukraine’s previous government.
At least three times in three years, planned visits by Yuschenko to Israel were postponed due to “scheduling conflicts.” Some Jewish leaders said the delays were the result of Ukrainian concerns over upsetting Arab allies, notably Iran and Syria.
Syria is one of Ukraine’s major trading partners. Ukraine exported some $602 million worth of goods to Syria in 2006, and some $234 million in the first four months of this year, according to the Ukraine Finance Ministry.
Syria’s finance minister has said Ukraine is his country’s largest trading partner in Eastern Europe. Yuschenko recently appointed a Syrian millionaire to be his Middle East adviser.
On his trip next week, Yuschenko will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
In Israel, Yuschenko will meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and hold discussions on business, tourism and agriculture. The two leaders are expected to discuss easing visa requirements for tourists from each other’s countries, and Yuschenko wants to push for greater Israeli business investment in Ukraine.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian immigrants live in Israel. Leonid Kuchma was the last Ukrainian president to visit Israel, in 1996.
“Hopefully the visit will provide President Yuschenko with a deep understanding of the Jewish state and Jewish people,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, which advocates for Jews in former Soviet republics. “It will also provide an opportunity for both governments to discuss the ongoing problems of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s government faced strong criticism last month from Jewish leaders for the lack of response by Ukraine authorities to a recent spike in anti-Semitic attacks in the country.
After the president of the European Jewish Congress canceled a planned trip to a ceremony in Ukraine to protest the government’s silence, Yuschenko met with Jewish leaders to assuage their concerns and affirm his government’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism.
But Jewish leaders fear Yuschenko will link his government’s fight against anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and Holocaust denial to Israel’s recognition of the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 as genocide.
Israel is unlikely to recognize the Holodomor as genocide because such a declaration inevitably would harm Israel’s ties with the Kremlin, which Ukraine accuses of having orchestrated the famine to destroy Ukraine, the Soviet Union’s bread basket, as a viable political entity.
An estimated 3 million to 4 million people died during the great famine, which also struck parts of Russia and Kazakhstan and resulted from Stalin’s policies of agricultural collectivization.
In Ukraine, Stalin’s campaign destroyed a significant part of the Ukrainian peasantry, virtually eliminated Ukraine’s clergy and resulted in the mass imprisonment and execution of Ukrainian intellectuals.
Yushchenko has pressed the genocide issue since taking office in 2005, and last year Ukraine’s parliament recognized the famine as genocide. More than two dozen other countries have recognized the Holodomor as genocide, but UNESCO has stopped short of that definition. Russia calls it a “tragedy” but not a genocide.
Aside from Zissels and Aleksandr Feldman, a parliament member and president of the Jewish Foundation of Ukraine, most Ukrainian Jewish leaders do not support recognizing the Holodomor as genocide.
Jewish leaders say it is unfair to link the Holodomor and the Holocaust, which Yuschenko reportedly plans to do by introducing a bill in the Ukrainian parliament that would recognize both the Jews’ suffering during the Holocaust and the suffering of the Ukrainian nation in the Holodomor.
“We regret the tragedy of the Ukrainian people, but Yuschenko can’t equate the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Holodomor in Ukraine,” said Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis.
Some Ukrainian nationalists have openly blamed Jews, among others, for the famine and the “genocide of Ukrainians.”
In their meetings with Yuschenko, Israeli officials are expected to bring up the attacks against Jews in Ukraine, which have included several rabbis being beaten up, including at least one Israeli, the burning of a Chabad house and neo-Nazis rallies.
In recent days there has been some praise from Jewish leaders in Ukraine for Yuschenko’s positive steps concerning the Jewish community in his country.
Last week, Yuschenko signed an order to return to the Jews an estimated 1,000 Torah scrolls confiscated from Jewish communities in Ukraine during the communist regime. Yuschenko also returned the historic Chernovtzy synagogue to the Jewish community, which was shuttered decades ago by the communists.
The president also has ordered the Ukrainian Security Service to establish a special department to combat hate crimes and proposed a bill to criminalize denial of the Holocaust – and denial of the Holodomor famine.
“I express my blessing to you for your concrete activities against manifestations of xenophobia and anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Azriel Chaikin, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis wrote in an open letter to the president several days ago.
Mikhail Frenkel, an expert on Ukraine-Israel relations, said the visit is a positive step but there is no serious dynamic between the two countries.
“Relations between Ukraine and Israel should be more concrete and realistic,” Frenkel said.