Sam Sokol

Ukraine is strengthening its ties to Israel even as it distorts Jewish history

Petro Poroshenko's Israel visit comes as his country obscures the role of its national heroes in the Holocaust

January 22, 2019 10:03

On the surface, everything looks rosy between Jerusalem and Kyiv. 

Ukraine and Israel took a significant step in strengthening their relationship this week when President Petro Poroshenko arrived in Jerusalem to sign a long-negotiated free trade agreement which will reportedly raise annual trade to more than $1 billion. 

Ukraine is increasingly a major tourist destination for Israelis too, and a significant source of relatively cheap overseas workers for the so-called startup nation’s tech industry.

But look beyond the diplomatic backslapping and you will find a country doing as much as it can to relativise the Holocaust and obscure the role of its national heroes in the murder of Jews. 

During a meeting with Mr Poroshenko on Monday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin thanked his Ukrainian counterpart for his “decisive words and actions against antisemitism in Ukraine and for creating a museum at Babi Yar to ensure that these horrible events will never be forgotten.” 

But while Mr Poroshenko’s efforts at creating a monument at Babi Yar are indeed laudable, his government has gone out of its way to rehabilitate national “heroes” such as Stepan Bandera, whose followers killed thousands of Jews and tens of thousands of Poles during the war. 

Speaking at Yad Vashem this week, Mr Poroshenko also again compared the Holocaust to the Holodomor, the man-made Soviet famine that killed several million Ukrainians and which his countrymen consider an intentional act of genocide by communist dictator Joseph Stalin.

In a post on Facebook following his laying of a wreath at the memorial, Mr Poroshenko wrote that Ukraine remembers “the memory of Holocaust victims as well as the millions of Ukrainians who perished during the Holodomor.” 

He has previously said denying the Holodomor was as bad as denying the Holocaust and touted an estimate of ten million victims, a number significantly higher than most scholarly estimates, which tend to hover around four million. 

“Drawing an equivalency between the two has been Ukraine's official angle on the issue for quite some time,” says Izabella Tabarovsky, a Russian-American scholar and the managing editor of the Kennan Institute's Russia File and Focus Ukraine blogs. 

“You could interpret it as an attempt to relate to the Jewish tragedy, but the reality is much more complex. Ukraine has fought hard for the Holodomor to become internationally recognised as a genocide against the Ukrainian people. To a considerable degree, that recognition now exists. 

“The darker underbelly of this is that many in Ukraine have used this to avoid difficult conversations about Ukraine's role in the Holocaust and to diminish the significance of the Holocaust in Ukraine's history and collective memory.” 

Israel has traditionally been rather muted in its response to Ukraine’s national memory policy, but that has begun to change since Ambassador Joel Lion took his post in Kyiv last year. During an interview with Radio Svoboda last year, Mr Lion said that “the heroes of Ukrainians are historically horror for the Jews.” 

Expanding on that in an interview with the Kyiv Post last week, he said Ukrainians had the right to choose their heroes but that they ought to “teach every facet of the personality, not only one part of the historical figure. It is important that the whole historical figure will be put through to the public.” 

January 22, 2019 10:03

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