A senior Jewish leader in Ukraine has been criticised after appearing to defend moves in the country to rehabilitate wartime nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis.
Josef Zissels, the chairman of the Jewish Confederation (Vaad), was thrust into the spotlight after scholars and Jewish groups abroad criticised recent efforts to praise historical Ukrainian nationalist leaders who collaborated with Germany during the Second World War before turning against them.
Many Jewish people were systematically killed in fighting across Ukraine during the war.
A letter signed by 56 Congressmen in the United States said there had been “incidents of state-sponsored Holocaust denial and antisemitism” in modern-day Ukraine.
But Mr Zissels responded angrily, saying the congressmen were collaborating with “political technologists working for the Kremlin”. He said a 2015 law that rehabilitated controversial nationalist figures like Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych “states the obvious — the fact that fighters for Ukraine’s independence fought for Ukraine’s independence.”
He also rejected Israeli reports on rising cases of antisemitism in Ukraine, claiming there had been no violent attacks on Jews last year and that critics of Ukraine — including Israeli President Reuven Rivlin — were parroting “Soviet propaganda.”
But at least two Jews were hurt in the western town of Uman last September in a grenade attack that the authorities attributed to “Russian provocateurs”.
Mr Zissels’s defence of the government has proved controversial in the local community.
A number of Ukrainian Jewish organisations distanced themselves from him last week, with more than 40 communal leaders issuing a statement expressing “deep concern at the rise of antisemitic incidents”.
The statement added that Mr Zissels and the Vaad “do not represent the Jews of Ukraine”.
It also led to divisions within the Vaad itself: the RUPJCU, a body representing progressive congregations, called on members not to “drag themselves into another scandal on behalf of the Jewish community of Ukraine.”
“As a Board member of the Vaad, I had a telephone conversation with Mr Zissels,” Reform leader Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny told the JC. “I represent not myself, as an individual, but the RUPJCU and its opinion, which is against the statement made on behalf of the board members of the Vaad.”
Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee advocacy group, said some Vaad board members declined to sign the statement which he called a “total shame on all Jews of Ukraine”.
Mr Zissels has a history of airing controversial remarks.
Early last year, he suggested the Holocaust was the result of a Jewish man’s 1926 assassination of Ukrainian general Simon Petliura, whose units were connected to Jewish pogroms.
He wrote on Facebook: “When we say that ‘all Jews are responsible for one another,’ do we also mean this case?
“And if we have, do we realize that for many other reasons, this murder paved the historical path to the Shoah?”
In a statement sent to the JC on Mr Zissels’s behalf, Vyacheslav Likhachev, an antisemitism researcher at the Vaad, said he did not support the glorifying nationalists like Shukhevych.
But he added it was important to note that the wartime leader had “never [been] convicted in court for committing war crimes” and that only Poland regarded his network as a criminal organisation.
Mr Zissels, he said, would support a law that would prevent the rehabilitation of individuals who had committed war crimes but at present “there is no rehabilitation of Nazi criminals in Ukraine.”
Mr Likhachev also accused opponents such as Dolinsky of having chosen the “pro-Russian side” and said he did not regard communal figures such as Chief Rabbi Bleich and Kyiv Rabbi Moshe Azman as leaders because they “were not elected by anybody.”
Jared McBride, a historian who specialises in the Holocaust and Ukrainian nationalism, said Mr Zissels’s recent statements suggested “he should spend more time studying the troubling events surrounding antisemitic acts and attacks in Ukraine, not to mention far-right attacks on Roma and the LGBTQ community, and less time on the US House of Representatives.
“Accusing everyone you don’t like of being a Kremlin stooge…diminishes the times when Kremlin interference and misinformation is very real and deserves attention and response.”