How did an American-born Chasidic rabbi end up on the team seeking to solve the political crisis in the Ukraine?
Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, who was asked to join a committee that is engaged in talks with anti-government protesters, explained that people have far more trust in their religious leaders than politicians.
“Close to 80 per cent of Ukrainians regard themselves as religious in some way,” he said. “As religious leaders we are more trusted, people appreciate us — we form an important part of Ukrainian civil society. In these discussions we can act as go-betweens and bring both sides to the table. The Jewish community is, of course, a small minority here, but we are a vocal minority.”
Since the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovich, decided to back away from an EU trade deal in favour of closer economic ties with Russia over three weeks ago, the country has been rocked by anti-government protests.
The rabbi was appointed by the first president of the Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk to work on the reconciliation group, called the “Uniting Ukraine” committee.
He said that Western governments have misread and oversimplified the crisis: “Yanukovich has done more than any other previous leader to bring Ukraine closer to the EU. Western governments don’t understand the reality on the ground and the frustration we are now seeing on the streets.
“It’s not black and white or about being pro-EU and anti-EU — the people simply don’t like the way the system is working. Ukraine doesn’t function like a normal democracy — both the government and opposition politicians don’t represent the demonstrators.”
Rabbi Bleich argued that the EU trade agreement, which Mr Yanukovich’s government rejected and the demonstrators support, would be bad for the economy because it would flood the country with European imports while preventing the same access for Ukrainian goods to the EU.
Despite this, the rabbi regarded Europe as key to Ukraine’s future and did not see the country forging closer ties with Russia. He was also optimistic about the future: “The demonstrations show that the people aren’t indifferent, they care about their future. My proposal is to form a national unity government that would bring members of the opposition into Parliament.”