The Jewish community of Ukraine has become an important player on the world stage — the results of 2021
2021 has been an incredibly eventful year for the Jewish community of Ukraine. This year, Kyiv hosted commemorative events dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre, in which the President of the State of Israel Isaac Herzog took part. The Ukrainian parliament passed a law incorporating the international definition of anti-Semitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). On May 14, Ukraine celebrated the Day of the Ukrainian Righteous Among the Nations for the first time. An agreement with Israel on a free trade zone has been acting since the beginning of the year.
These are only some of the events that made the expiring year truly fruitful in the thirty-year history of the revival of the Ukrainian Jewish community. All of them were reflected in one way or another during the recently ended third Kyiv Jewish Forum — a global international forum held annually since 2019 at the initiative of the President of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, Vice-President of the World Jewish Congress Boris Lozhkin. We spoke with Boris Lozhkin immediately after the end of KJF-2021.
- Are you satisfied with the third Kyiv Jewish Forum?
- I am. As well as with the first two. Every year I am even more convinced that the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine made the right decision in 2019. The idea of inviting world Jewish leaders to discuss the most pressing issues of the world Jewry has paid off. There was a lack of such a platform. This is not only my opinion; all KJF participants talk about it. The audience and geographical representation are growing every year. In the first year, when there was no pandemic, we brought together 500 participants from all over the world in Kyiv. In the previous forum, which was already online, the audience exceeded 83,000 people.
The coverage of KJF-2021 has already reached 320,000 people. That’s just social networks and online broadcasts. I would like to thank our partners for organizing the forum — Combat Antisemitism Movement, Center for Jewish Impact and Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. With their help, we were able to make KJF even more global.
The growing reputation of our discussion platform is also evidenced by the level of representation — the presidents of Ukraine and Israel Volodymyr Zelensky and Isaac Herzog, ministers, parliamentarians, representatives of the UN, the European Commission, most of the world’s leading Jewish associations and national communities, scientists, businessmen. Each of the more than forty speakers are world-class figures.
Ambassador of Ukraine to the State of Israel Yevgen Korniychuk and Boris Lozhkin at the Kyiv Jewish Forum-2021
- The forum was dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Ukraine. Was this the only topic considered?
Formally, we dedicated this forum to the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Ukraine. However, vectors can be drawn both into the future and into the past from this date, and even without being tied to geography. Using the example of the Ukrainian-Israeli relations and, more broadly, relations between Jews and Ukrainians, one can trace the centuries-old history of the development of world Jewry. This is exactly what our guests and speakers did.
Many have probably already heard, but I will repeat it once again: until the beginning of the twentieth century, the largest Jewish community in the world lived in Ukraine. Immigrants from Ukraine can be found absolutely everywhere where Jews live today. In many ways, they made the world the way we see it now — In the United States, they developed economic science, formed modern cinema and show business, in almost all fields of science they reached the level of Nobel laureates. The idea of creating an independent Jewish state was once born on the territory of current Ukraine, Hasidism started here and the first settlers to develop the lands of Eretz Israel were from Ukraine.
A partner of the third Kyiv Jewish Forum, head of the Center for Jewish Impact Robert Singer and Boris Lozhkin at a reception on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Ukraine
- This is already history. What about now? How big is the Jewish community in Ukraine today?
- Before the start of World War II, there were about 3 million Jews in Ukraine; only one and a half remained after the war.
Today the Ukrainian Jewish community is estimated at about 200,000 people. It is the fourth largest Jewish community in Europe and is now once again among the leading players of the world Jewry.
Taking into account the long history of living together, which was not always cloudless, Jews in Ukraine were able to become a full-fledged and important part of the Ukrainian society. Ukrainians, in turn, accept Jews, overwhelmingly, positively.
The example of Ukraine is unique for the world, and it must be protected and developed. Former US Special Envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism Elan Carr even introduced a neologism in relation to Ukraine at KJF-2021, calling our country the center of “philosemitism” (the opposite of “anti-Semitism”, from the Greek philéo — to love — ed.). I believe, this is the best assessment of the activities of the Ukrainian Jewish community.
Boris Lozhkin is on the air of the Kyiv Jewish Forum
- Let’s go back to the results of the year. On the eve of the forum, the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy was commemorated. How important is Babyn Yar for Ukraine and the world?
- In the Soviet Union, the history of Babyn Yar was hushed up in every possible way, especially in connection with tens of thousands of Jews who were murdered there. In Ukraine, on the other hand, everything is being done to make it known as much as possible and as far as possible outside of Ukraine.
This year, a synagogue has already begun to operate in Babyn Yar, and soon, we hope, a Memorial Complex will appear, worthy of the memory of tens of thousands of the victims. As the chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Dani Dayan said at KJF-2021, Babyn Yar is important for preserving the memory of the Holocaust because it is namely here that “the systematic operation of the machine for mass murder of Jews began.” The most famous example of the Holocaust was Auschwitz, but Babyn Yar is the starting point, and the most blood-stained in the history of the Holocaust, when Jews were exterminated in the open, and not behind the fence of a concentration camp.
The head of the Supervisory Board of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center Natan Sharansky said at the forum that the future memorial should not be just a memorial complex, it will become a leading center for Holocaust studies along with Yad Vashem. This is important because preserving the memory of the Holocaust and studying the reasons behind such horrible consequences is a safeguard against the repetition of such events in the future.
Returning again to Dani Dayan, I want to quote him again: “In the 1930s, the world could say it did not know. We do not have such luxury today.
Yad Vashem Head Dani Dayan and Boris Lozhkin during a meeting at Yad Vashem. Jerusalem
By the way, for this purpose, to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy, the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, together with the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, based on materials provided by Yad Vashem, published the book “Righteous Among the Nations. Ukraine”. There are 2,674 stories of the salvation of Jews by Ukrainians during World War II in it. However, believe me, this is only a small part of the real numbers. The title of the Righteous Among the Nations is awarded by Yad Vashem on the basis of documented testimony from either those who have been saved or their relatives or acquaintances. At the same time, very many rescuers were in no hurry to speak about their help, as they were supposed to be shot for this. I know this on the example of my friend’s mother. She was rescued by at least six different people, but she did not know their names, and, unfortunately, their names have not been included in our book. However, the fact that we published it, I believe, was also a tribute to their memory.
- “Righteous Among the Nations. Ukraine” is not the first book published by the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine. The stories of Isaac Leib Peretz (Yitskhok Leybush Peretz) were published earlier. The “Jewish Library” series has been launched this year. Why does JCU pay so much attention to book publishing?
- Once again, let’s return to the recently held Kyiv Jewish Forum. A lot of attention has been paid during it to education, in several of its dimensions. One of the main of them is the prevention of the growth of anti-Semitism. Its nature is that facts are distorted, and the truth about the Holocaust is either hushed up or denied altogether. The more people get to know about Jews, their history, culture, contribution to world evolution, the less manifestations of anti-Semitism there will be. Ignorance and lack of information are at the root of many problems, and anti-Semitism is one of them. Books help fill this gap.
Yes, you are right, the Jewish Library book series has been launched this year. It is published by JCU and my charitable foundation together with the Yuriy Lutsenko Charitable Foundation and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress in the publishing house “Our Format”. The series in the Ukrainian language publishes works about prominent Jews and Israel, which have already become world bestsellers. That is, we are rediscovering the masterpieces of world literature for the Ukrainian readers, telling them about Jews in an exciting and fascinating way.
The series has already released “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn” by Dr. Daniel Gordis and the memoirs of the born in Kyiv fourth Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir. Another book is coming out soon — “Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service”. We will continue the series next year.
The first two books in the Jewish Library series are “Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn” by Dr. Daniel Gordis and Golda Meir’s autobiography: “My Life”
Our book “Righteous among the Nations. Ukraine” is also about education. It is generally possible and necessary to talk about the tragedy of the Holocaust, but when you get acquainted with specific stories, the picture of what was happening becomes much more real and therefore more terrible.
By the way, speaking about education, this year on May 14 Ukraine celebrated for the first time the Day of the Righteous Among the Nations in Ukraine. This is one more positive example from Ukraine. Currently the world marks the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, and the European Day of the Righteous Among the Nations is on March 6. At the national level, as far as I know, the Ukrainian Day of the Righteous was the first. Now, every year, the Holocaust and the Ukrainians who saved Jews will be talked about at least one day more often. I hope that there will be less manifestations of anti-Semitism as a result.
The moderator of the Kyiv Jewish Forum 2021 Nurit Ben and Boris Lozhkin in the forum’s studio
- Many speakers at the Kyiv Jewish Forum praised Ukraine for the fact that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism has been adopted in the Law on Preventing and Countering Anti-Semitism. Why is it important?
This is, indeed, one of the most important events of the expiring year. The fact is that the IHRA definition is a legally verified definition of anti-Semitism, consistent with the norms of the international law, which takes into account any manifestations of anti-Semitism. The adoption by the Verkhovna Rada of this law is a serious step towards the civilized world. The fact that the Law on Countering Anti-Semitism was adopted is the merit of President Volodymyr Zelensky and the deputies, who have done a great job. However, this is not the end, after its adoption, the world now expects specific applications of the law from Ukraine, and then it is necessary to complete the procedure and join the IHRA Alliance as a full-fledged member. This will not only be useful for the coordinated fight against anti-Semitism, but also have a positive effect on the image of Ukraine — the IHRA is open only to democratic societies. It is impossible only to declare the values of the IHRA, they also need to be implemented.
When, for example, the destruction of hanukkiah during the celebration of Hanukkah ceases to be qualified as hooliganism, but begins to be recognized as acts of anti-Semitism and accordingly punished for this, this will mean that the law is working.
- Let’s go back to where we started. 30 years of diplomatic relations between Israel and Ukraine. What can our countries boast about during this period?
- As I already mentioned, Ukrainian Jews once played one of the most decisive roles in the emergence of Israel as an independent Jewish state. Therefore, when Ukraine proclaimed its independence, Jews, not only from Israel, but from all over the world, provided incredibly powerful support so that our state could get stronger and was a success. Today we already have to learn from Israel and, frankly speaking, Israel has something to offer.
This year, after a long period of negotiations, the Free Trade Zone with Israel has been launched. This agreement covers a lot of spheres, including cooperation in many sectors, from the agricultural sector to IT-technologies. Ukraine has a similar level of the Free Trade Zone only with Canada. According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, which he announced at KJF-2021, the trade turnover between our countries has already increased by 10% during the nine months of action of the agreement. At the end of 2020, our trade turnover amounted to $790 million. Taking into account the dynamics of this year, we will be able to reach approximately $900 million. This is good, but still not enough. Our mutual potential is much greater, and this was also mentioned at the forum by almost all speakers. Dmytro Kuleba, for example, believes that the agreement on a free trade zone with Israel should be extended not only to goods, but also to services. I completely agree with him.
Natan Sharansky recalled with what enthusiasm Ukrainian Jewish immigrants looked at Ukraine in the first years of independence. Our country was expected to play a role in Europe no less than that of France. Unfortunately, not all hopes became the reality, but, I repeat, the good news is that we have great potential, and it depends on us how we use it.
For me, as a venture investor, for example, it was very useful to get acquainted with the best practices of Israel, which has established itself as the number one start-up state in the world. To be more exact, as the author of the book ”Chutzpah” Inbal Arieli clarified during the forum, Israel used to be a startup state, but now it is more correct to talk about the state of “unicorns” — this is how private companies worth $1 billion and more are called.
Back in 2013, there was only one such “unicorn” in Israel, and today there are more than 70 of them, and they all have grown out of startups. This experience is just what Ukraine should adopt today, and it is not the only one.
The secret, says Inbal Arieli, lies in the special nature of Jewish education, which encourages initiative and experimentation. In addition, service in the army also plays a significant role, where not only the spirit of collectivism and responsibility for the future of the state is fostered, but also this encouragement of initiative and creativity is even more consolidated. This is how the SeeTree company was born. It was founded by the reserve officer Israel Tal-Paz. SeeTree specializes in using artificial intelligence to manage agricultural companies.
Or another manifestation of creativity — the company Redefine Meat. 3D printed meat, made from plant-based ingredients. It is practically impossible to distinguish it neither in appearance nor in taste from the usual animal, or traditional meat, as the producers call it. I was at the production site and tried the “new” 3D printed meat. It is delicious, by the way. Eshchar Ben-Shitrit, the founder of the company, is confident that in 20–30 years this technology will dominate the meat-processing sector and help feed the growing population of the Earth.
3D printer that produces Redefine Meat
Israel has no other choice but to constantly take the initiative. Its history is a never-ending series of challenges. Natural resources are scarce, the state is in a hostile environment, the only valuable resource is its own citizens, and this resource is used to the maximum.
I would like these successful developments of Israel to be applied also in Ukraine.
- How would you characterize the current relations between Israel and Ukraine?
- The Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky spoke best of all about this at the KJF-2021. He called the relations between our countries as family type of relationship.