(Re-Alignments) Glory to Ukraine (Anti-Semitism & Liberal Democracy)

Glory to Ukraine is the old and heavy national slogan of Ukrainian independence.  It is fraught with the heavy load of ethno-nationalism and violent anti-Semitism. For a little historical background, see this item here that I found online and here at Wikipedia. Every item and every image is terrifying. The site does, provides an interesting window into that worldview that historically aligned itself with fascism and Nazism against Russian empire and Soviet communism. The slogan and its political history are at the basis of the ugly notion that Ukrainian President Zelensky is a stooge of neo-Nazis. This is part of the disinformation peddled by Vladimir Putin. It is popping up in the west among circles on the radical left, represented in this case, by The Nation and at the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), for whom U.S. imperialism, NATO, and NATO expansion are the root of all evil. This history is at the heart of a lot of Jewish anxiety about Ukraine as a place.

What history alone and on its own cannot account for is how so many Jews are all of a sudden and spontaneously supporting the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian nation. This represents something that might turn into a sea-change in Jewish cultural memory and politics, responsive to something new in terms of political alignments since Ukrainian independence after the breakup of the U.S.S.R in 1991 and then with the Maidan Revolution in 2014.

I’m suggesting that there are at least 2 realignments in play.

[1] Instead of aligning with Russia or the Bolsheviks during the Soviet Union, Ukrainian Jews and, and now with them, the larger “global” Jewish community re-align their own interests around Ukrainian society. For all the problems with anti-Semitism, we are now seeing Jews in Ukraine integrated into and Jewish life flourishing in Ukrainian society. In Ukrainian society, the problem is Russian imperialism, not “the Jews.” A hard neo-Nazi core representing a mere 2% of voters in the last democratic election made no dent in the overwhelming support for President Zelensky, while that election highlights an emergent and confident expression of Ukrainian Jewishness.

[2] There seems to be an emergent re-alignment of the Ukrainian nation and nationalism around core liberal democratic values. The Ukrainian struggle and international support for Ukrainian independence is now integrated or integrating into the political struggle of liberal democracy against autocracy as the country shifts its eye towards the west.

With large Russian and Ukrainian ex-pat communities in a Jewish majority nation-state, Israel, a liberal democracy itself steeped in ethno-nationalism, is an interesting site around which to reflect on these realignments. On one hand, there is some support for Putin on the hardcore Israeli right, on the other hand popular protests in support of Ukraine by Ukrainian and Russian Israeli Jews. Now would be an interesting time to be reading the Russian language news out of Israel, but I don’t speak the language. The Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War and its presence there has been an ongoing focus of attention, as are human and cultural interest stories.

I am posting three items of interest to what seems like a sudden shift, not towards re-thinking the horrid past but looking to stake out new directions in relation to a country that has such deep Jewish historical resonance. You can find these items here and here and here. Two are op-eds by Dimitry Shumsky, a historian at Hebrew University who grew up in Ukraine where he suffered anti-Semitism before moving to Israel with his family at the age of fifteen in the 1990s. The other is by Omar Bartov, an Israeli American (American Israeli?) historian of the Holocaust. A major study by him, Anatomy of Genocide looks at the destruction of the storied community in Buczacz. Tales from the Borderlands is a new book due out this later year which seeks to reconstruct an image of that community. In all three pieces posted here, Shumsky and Bartov reflect upon history and life history while reflecting upon this current moment. They can be read alongside Jeffrey Veidlinger, In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918–1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust. 

What I want to note about these three pieces by Shumsky and Bartov is that they share the same structure. About half or more than half of each piece touches upon the painfulness of the past, upon growing up in an anti-Semitic country. And then there is a sudden shift. As if out of the blue, a new paragraph shifts attention to changes in Ukrainian society since independence in 1991 and since the Maidan Revolution in 2014, the flourishing of Jewish life in that country, and the authors’ own absolute support for the struggle for Ukrainian independence in the face of aggression from Putin and his circle. You can identify that precise paragraph where the thinking about Ukraine abruptly realigns, and how this realignment is made possible by the larger realignment around core liberal values and against authoritarianism.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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