The Ukrainian Jewish community is nervous. The ultra-nationalist Svoboda party, with its history of anti-Semitism and platform of ethnic nationalism, won more than 10 percent of the vote in October 2012, shared the political leadership of the Maidan revolution over the past months, and just this week received three ministries in the new Ukrainian government.
While Svoboda's leaders have refrained recently from making anti-Semitic statements, it is troubling that Oleksandr Sych, Svoboda's chief ideologue, was named vice prime minister. Sych's speeches over the years have focused on promoting Ukrainian nationalism, which he says is exemplified by Stepan Bandera, a leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s. Bandera was at times aligned with the Nazis during World War II and was complicit in mass killings of Jews and Poles by Ukrainian partisans.
Sych has also said that Ukrainian nationalism is threatened both by "the Communist Russian regime and liberal Europe." How ironic that he was brought to power by a revolution sparked by former President Viktor Yanukovych's sudden refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union.
Interestingly, the armed nationalist groups that fought on the Maidan against government troops and police have made important gestures toward the Jewish community this week.
Dmitro Yarosh, leader of Right Sector, met with Israel's ambassador to Ukraine, Reuven Din El, and told him that their movement rejects anti-Semitism and xenophobia and will not tolerate it. He said their goals were a democratic Ukraine, transparent government, ending corruption, and equal opportunity for all ethnic groups.
The day before, Ukrainian Jewish journalist Eleonora Groisman interviewed Sergei Mischenko, the leader of "Spilna Sprava," and told him that Ukraine's Jews were worried about the nationalists. Mischenko responded that Jews will not have any problems and shouldn't worry. He went on to say, "On the Maidan there were Jews with us who served in the Israeli Defense Forces. We got along excellently and fought shoulder to shoulder."
In November 2013, not long before the anti-Yanukovych protests began, ADL honored Metropolitan Archbishop Andrei Sheptytsky, a spiritual leader of Ukrainian Catholics who headed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church from 1900 until his death in 1944. Metropolitan Sheptytsky was posthumously awarded ADL's Jan Karski Courage to Care Award for his undaunted heroism in saving Jews from the Holocaust.
After lauding Metropolitan Sheptytsky's actions, I said:
I want to make one last point, regarding the situation today in Ukraine. There is a strong and growing Ukrainian nationalist movement. It faces a choice of role models: the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who declared an independent Ukrainian state on June 30, 1941 in Lviv, when the Nazis drove out the Soviet army, and the next day began murdering Jews. Or it can be inspired by the Ukrainian nationalist Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, who wrote on July 1, the day after the state was declared, that the new government should exercise - quote -- "wise, just leadership and measures that would take into consideration the needs and welfare of all citizens who inhabit our land, without regard to what faith, nationality, or social stratum they belong."
The Ukrainian nationalism of Andrei Sheptytsky, one of compassion, even love, for his Jewish neighbors, is one that Jews around the world can embrace and support. And we ask all who are inspired by the Metropolitan's actions and words to help oppose the destructive Banderite strain.
Will Vice Prime Minister Sych renounce Bandera and embrace Europe? Will Svoboda accept Jews as full-fledged Ukrainians and follow the welcome assurances of the armed nationalists? Or will the promises of Right Sector and Spilna Sprava be overtaken by the ethnic nationalism of Svoboda?
Meanwhile, security is being upgraded at Jewish institutions. Over the past several weeks, two Jews in Kiev were violently attacked and Molotov cocktails were thrown at a synagogue in Zaporozhe. Some Jewish leaders have even raised the possibility of a mass exodus from Ukraine.
The future of the Ukrainian Jewish community could depend on the choices made by Svoboda and the actions of Ukraine's democratic leaders.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, together with UDAR leader Sergei Klichko, brought Svoboda into the opposition coalition in 2012. Now, having brought Svoboda into the government, it is up to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk to ensure that anti-Semitism is not tolerated and that democratic norms are adhered to. By sending that message to the people of Ukraine now, the prime minister will reassure the Jewish community and set an admirable example.
Guiding Ukraine's nationalists to adopt the path of Metropolitan Sheptytsky will be a major test of Ukraine's democratic development and an important step forward for the country. If achieved, the future of Ukraine's Jewish community may be bright, not bleak.