For international observers aware of the painful history of Jews in Eastern Europe, the fact the Jewishness of a presidential candidate was not an issue in the Ukrainian elections was, in the words of Elan Carr, US envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, “nothing short of stunning.” A manifestation of deeper changes taking root in the country whose new generation is impatiently disposing of the remnants of its Soviet past, it illustrates the remarkable progress made by Ukraine in recent years.
However, there was more behind the eagerness with which guests engaged with the Forum than the recent election.
On a subtler level, the overwhelmingly positive response to the Kyiv Jewish Forum has revealed the rise of a new phenomenon — a growing fascination with Ukraine in the contemporary Jewish Diaspora, and the emergence of Ukrainian Jewish identity. Jews all over the world are now seeking to rediscover their Ukrainian roots.
Ukraine, the cradle of Hasidism, has always held a special place in the history of Judaism. Before the pogroms of 1919, the Holodomor and the Holocaust, the Jewish community in Ukraine was one of the largest in the world and made up more than 15% of the population of the country. Many do not know that Yiddish was one of three state languages on the paper currency of the Ukrainian People’s Republic between 1917 and 1921.
A large part of the Jewish population of Israel, the United States and Western Europe originate from Ukraine, including many luminaries who have helped shape modern Jewish history. Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, and Zeev Jabotinsky, the ideological father of Israel’s Likud party, are two examples.
The grandparents of Bob Dylan and Stephen Spielberg also traveled from Ukraine to the United States. Others, such as the ancestors of Serge Gainsbourg in France and René Goscinny in Belgium, settled in Western Europe.
For decades, Jews from the Diaspora whose ancestors originated from Ukraine identified themselves mostly as Polish or Russian Jews – a legacy of the long history of occupation of what is now the territory of contemporary Ukraine.
This is now changing. Following the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, identifying oneself as a Ukrainian Jew has become increasingly popular in the Diaspora, according to many high-profile Jewish leaders who attended the Kyiv Jewish Forum.
Ukraine’s recent fight for independence against Russian aggression was a major contributor to this phenomenon. For one, it has shown a side of the nation that many in the Jewish Diaspora – and indeed in Ukraine itself – did not know existed and were, perhaps, taken by surprise. As Jewish and Ukrainian people fought side by side in the east of the country against Russia-funded militias, a new sense of unity emerged, which is now being felt outside of Ukraine too.
To quote Anshel Pfeffer’s recent article on Jews embracing their Ukrainian identity: “‘Ukrainian Jews’ is a relatively new concept, but one whose time has come.”
This is a powerful sign of the Jewish renaissance in Ukraine and the beginning of a new era for Ukraine’s relationship with the global Jewry. It will be important to maintain this momentum and inspire even more Jews all over the world to proudly call themselves Ukrainian.
But we must also remain vigilant. We must do more to educate a new generation of Ukrainians about the Holocaust and the fight against anti-Semitism remains the number one priority of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine. It will take years for Ukraine to fully integrate its strong Jewish heritage in its national identity and to reconcile this new history chapter with the lessons of the past.