Netanyahu’s praise of Kyiv’s Holocaust remembrance only tells part of the story

Recent years have seen efforts to reframe Ukraine’s involvement in Nazi atrocities; local Jewish groups say its historical memory policy is deeply problematic and revisionist

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, stand at Babi Yar ravine where Nazi troops murdered tens of thousands of Jews during WWII, in Kyiv, Ukraine, August 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Zoya Shu)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, stand at Babi Yar ravine where Nazi troops murdered tens of thousands of Jews during WWII, in Kyiv, Ukraine, August 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Zoya Shu)

On Monday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood at Kyiv’s Babi Yar ravine with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s recently elected Jewish president, and praised the former Soviet republic for what he said was its commitment to memory.

More than 30,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis at the site over a period of two days in 1941.

“I thank you President Zelensky, and I also thank the Ukrainian government, for your efforts to preserve the memory of the Holocaust,” Netanyahu said. “You are continuing your efforts in the war against anti-Semitism.”

While Ukraine has indeed made efforts to commemorate the Holocaust in recent years, especially at Babi Yar, its record on memory is far more complicated than Netanyahu’s statement indicated.

In 2014, Ukrainians took to the streets of Kyiv, deposing pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych and sparking a Russian military intervention that saw Moscow annexing the Crimean peninsula and fomenting an ongoing separatist uprising in the eastern Donbas region.

The following year, the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, passed a series of bills known collectively as the Decommunization Laws, meant to sever the country’s ties to its Russian and Soviet past. One of the bills prohibited what it called the “public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for independence of Ukraine in the twentieth century.”

In practical terms, these bills paved the way for the rehabilitation of Ukrainian ultranationalist figures like Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its offshoot the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), respectively. Both men and their organizations had collaborated with the Nazis and their followers were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles.

Thousands of Ukrainian nationalists hold a torchlight procession across Kiev in honor of Stepan Bandera, a World War II anti-Soviet insurgent, on January 1, 2015 (photo credit: AFP/Genya Savilov)

Over the last several years, streets all over the country have been named after the far-right figures and steps have been taken to rehabilitate their images, casting them as fighters for democracy whose followers saved Jews from the Germans.

During this period, several efforts were also made to revise the history of Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust that directly involved Babi Yar, the very site where Netanyahu delivered his praise of Ukrainian Holocaust memorial efforts this week. In early 2016, Jewish groups harshly criticized Ukraine over an architectural competition aimed at revamping the site that sought to fix the “discrepancy between the world’s view and Jewry’s exclusive view of Babi Yar as a symbol of the Holocaust.”

Less than a year later, at the official commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the massacre, a sign was erected memorializing Ukrainian journalists who the authorities claimed had been killed at the site. They had worked for an OUN-linked newspaper which had actively called on Ukrainians to turn Jews over to the Gestapo. In 2018, then-president Petro Poroshenko appointed the leader of the OUN’s current incarnation to a committee tasked with planning for the future of the site.

Netanyahu’s comments are part of a larger pattern of declining to confront revisionism among Israel’s Central and Eastern European allies, who he sees as a counterbalance to the EU’s more critical members.

PM Netanyahu, his wife Sara and Ukrainian President Zelensky lay wreaths at a monument for Jewish victims killed at Babi Yar in Kyiv, Ukraine, August 19, 2019 (Amos Ben-Gershom (GPO)

Historians like Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt have been especially critical of the approach. In an interview with The Times of Israel last month, she asserted that Netanyahu should not “go play with the Poles and the Hungarians and the Lithuanians, and then claim for yourself the mantle of being the main address for fighting anti-Semitism in this world.”

In many ways, Ukraine has made strides in raising awareness of the Holocaust, especially compared to the Soviet period when mention of the genocide was prohibited. One of the ways it has improved can be seen in its support for a project promoted by former Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, which seeks to build a Holocaust memorial center at Babi Yar.

Netanyahu referenced this during his speech when he said that he and Zelensky had spoken with “Sharansky about the possibility of establishing a heritage center here that would be a symbol to all of humanity. A symbol and a monument.”

This is indeed a positive development, but Netanyahu’s praise only tells part of the story.

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