Ukraine-Israel relations on the upswing, but challenges remain
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                  Ukraine-Israel relations on the upswing, but challenges remain

                  Israeli Ambassador Joel Lion speaks with the Kyiv Post in his office on May 2, 2019, several days before the Kyiv Jewish Forum. Photo by Oleg Petrasiuk

                  Ukraine-Israel relations on the upswing, but challenges remain


                  On May 5, around 100 people packed into a screening room in the Kyiv Cinema to watch From Slavery to Freedom, a new documentary about Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky and his struggle for the right to emigrate to Israel.

                  They weren’t just there for the film. They had also come to see Sharansky in person, ask him questions, and hear his views on Ukrainian and Jewish ties.

                  And the attendees weren’t just film and history buffs. They also included (briefly) President Petro Poroshenko, prominent Jewish Ukrainians, and even Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev and Ukrainian politician Stepan Khmara — both Sharansky’s fellow Soviet dissidents.

                  The film showing effectively launched the Kyiv Jewish Forum, a major conference marking 20 years since the founding of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, an organization led by Borys Lozhkin, Poroshenko’s former Chief of Staff.

                  Clearly well-financed and -connected, the conference brought together international Jewish leaders, Israeli lawmakers, and prominent Ukrainian officials — a show of Jewish-Ukrainian friendship likely unseen in the country’s post-independence history.

                  It also came as relations between Ukraine and Israel grow closer. In January, the two governments signed a free trade agreement. Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists travel between the two countries, which are also connected by historical, family, and cultural ties.

                  Disagreements, both political and historical, still remain. But after the EuroMaidan Revolution of 2014 — which has united Ukrainians of different backgrounds around common goals of democracy and European integration — Jews and Ukrainians find themselves on the same side. And as the war with Russia continues to simmer, Ukrainians increasingly view Israel’s experience of development despite external security threats as a model for them.

                  The Kyiv Jewish Forum is one more manifestation of this development. And it was a local initiative, Israeli Ambassador Joel Lion told the Kyiv Post in an interview on May 2, just a few days before the forum.

                  “That’s what is something big and new,” Lion said. “It’s is the organization of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine.”

                  Israeli-Ukrainian ties

                  In Jewish circles, Ukraine has traditionally not enjoyed the best reputation. The country is associated with Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, during whose 1648–1657 uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth tens of thousands of Jews were killed.

                  During World War II, some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis and engaged in ethnic cleansing of the local Jewish and Polish populations.

                  At that time, Ukraine’s nationalist movements viewed the Nazis as an opportunity to liberate their country from centuries of Russian rule. For this reason, some of these individuals, like nationalist leaders Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, are currently recognized as freedom fighters and heroes in Ukraine.

                  None of this is beneficial for Kyiv’s relations with Israel.

                  But there is another way of looking at ties between the countries. It is unlikely that the modern state of Israel would exist today without Ukraine. Many of its founding fathers, most prominent writers, and important leaders were born in what is today Ukraine.

                  Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a Russian-language writer and journalist who advanced the cause of a Jewish state, was born in Odesa and raised in the vibrant, multi-cultural milieu of the fabled pre-Soviet port city. Hayim Nahman Bialik, Israel’s national poet, was born in what is today Zhytomyr Oblast.

                  Israel’s second and fourth prime ministers, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, were born in Kyiv Oblast and the city of Kyiv, respectively. And Meir Dizengoff — the first mayor of Tel Aviv, today the seat of Israel’s largest metropolitan area — lived many years of his life in Odesa.

                  In other words, the people who founded Israel were neighbors and sometimes friends of Ukrainians’ great-grandparents, and deeply influenced — for better or worse — by the societies they emerged from.

                  Ukraine is also a place of tremendous Jewish history, where many Jewish sages lived and are buried. The graves of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the city of Uman and of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, in Medzhybizh village attract tens of thousands of pilgrims each year.

                  Ukrainians are increasingly aware of these ties, Ambassador Lion says.

                  When he made his first official visit to Odesa in April, Lion found that the local leadership wants to attract visitors and develop the tourism potential of the surrounding region — including with the help of Israel.

                  “One of the ideas they have is to attract investors,” Lion said. “And Israelis could be investing in this kind of thing because we are pretty well invested in tourism.”

                  Cultural ties are also important. While in Odesa, Lion attended a concert by Israeli violin virtuoso Shlomo Mintz, which was organized by Nativ, Israel’s cultural agency. The next major Israeli musical event in Ukraine will be of a different nature: pop singer Netta Barzilai, the winner of the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, will perform in the Atlas Weekend music festival in Kyiv in July.

                  And historical ties pave the way to other connections. During a visit to Odesa Mechnikov State University, Lion discussed opportunities for international cooperation with Israeli universities and spoke with students and faculty. One of the subjects of conversation was Mordechai Namir, Tel Aviv’s fourth mayor and an alum of the university.

                  “In the modern history of Israel, there are the ties, and they know it,” he told the Kyiv Post. “They feel it and they know it.”

                  Such ties are clearly advantageous for Ukraine. Israel is a global center of the IT industry. Meanwhile, Ukraine is a country that produces many programmers and whose IT sector is rapidly growing.

                  This has led Israeli IT companies seeking qualified workers to turn to Ukraine. And with over a million Israelis who are immigrants from the former Soviet Union — and around two million Israelis who speak Russian — it isn’t difficult to find a common language.

                  The free trade agreement between Israel and Ukraine, signed by Poroshenko and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January, is yet another step toward improving bilateral cooperation.

                  There has, however, been a slight snag. While the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers has approved the draft law on the agreement for ratification, in December the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, voted to dissolve the government. That made ratifying the agreement temporarily impossible.

                  On April 9, the country held snap elections. Now, as the victorious Netanyahu works to form a new coalition, ratifying the document appears increasingly doable. Lion addressed this issue during a panel at the Kyiv Jewish Forum.

                  “I will ask my friends from the Knesset who are here: Guys, you have to ratify this agreement as soon as possible,” he said from the stage. “Push it… because we want it to enter into force.” That agreement is “only a base for our businesses to know one another,” Lion said. And, indeed, in its current form, the document only applies to goods. But it creates a foundation for trade and, potentially, expanding the agreement to cover services too.

                  The Ukrainian side is also enthusiastic about greater ties with Israel.

                  During the forum, Ukrainian lawmaker Georgii Logvynskyi, who chairs the group for inter-parliamentary relations with Israel, noted that Israel was founded by people who emigrated from Ukraine.

                  “These people…were our Ukrainian investment in Israel. We gave our best people. It’s the best thing that could happen,” he said. “And now, my dear respected friends, we are waiting for our dividends.”

                  Work to be done

                  But not everything is smooth sailing in the Ukrainian-Israeli relationship. There are still political and historical disagreements that need to be addressed.

                  Recently, migration issues have proven a particular challenge. Since 2011, Ukraine and Israel have had a visa-free regime. Around 300,000 Israelis come to Ukraine and 160,000 Ukrainians visit Israel annually.

                  But Ukraine is a poor country with a struggling economy. The average monthly wage is around $350. Meanwhile, in Israel, that monthly income is closer to $2,900. This makes the country an attractive destination for illegal migrant workers.

                  Border security is generally high in Israel. That, combined with increased scrutiny due to migration concerns, means that Ukrainian travelers arriving at Ben Gurion Airport have frequently been subjected to intense security screenings and interrogations that they find demeaning. A significant number have even been denied entry into Israel and deported back to Ukraine.

                  On several occasions, Ukrainian officials — Education Minister Lilia Grinevych and even Logvynskyi himself — have almost not been allowed into Israel.

                  The issue came to a head in February and March, when the two countries denied entry to several groups of tourists in what was widely regarded as escalating acts of protest against the other’s actions. At the peak of this confrontation, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry threatened to pull out of the visa-free agreement.

                  According to Ambassador Lion, the illegal migration problem is real: around 27,000 Ukrainian citizens have overstayed their visa-free period. “For a country of eight million people, it’s a huge number,” he told the Kyiv Post.

                  Beyond simple illegal migration, criminal groups trafficking young women into Israel for prostitution are another concern, he said.

                  But Lion says that the threat to end visa-free was not serious, and that now both governments are actively working to resolve the issue. “I hope that now we are finding in our dialogue a modus vivendi,” he said.

                  But there is likely a lot more work to be done.

                  The issue has been raised on the level of presidents and prime ministers, and the countries’ migration services, foreign ministries, and ambassadors are all working on it, Israeli lawmaker Yoel Razvozov said during a discussion at the Kyiv Jewish Forum.

                  “We are working, but it’s hard to expect results soon,” he said. “Still I hope we can accomplish it.”

                  Burden of history

                  Despite the migration challenges, bilateral relations remain warm, and Israel has taken a principled stance in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Lion notes that this is not easy for the Israeli government, which has Russia right on its border in Syria.

                  But there is a challenge in Ukrainian-Israeli relations that cuts to the core of another of Israel’s principled positions: the issue of historical memory. Israel — and many Jewish organizations — disapprove of Ukraine’s glorification of nationalist figures like Stepan Bandera, whom historians implicate in violence against Jews.

                  Lion himself has been particularly vocal in his criticism of Ukraine’s decision to treat these figures’ heroism as beyond question.

                  The issue is personal for him. Members of his family were killed in the Holocaust, including two great-grandparents, who both hailed from western Ukraine and were killed in Kamianests-Podilsky — today in Khmelnytskyi Oblast — in 1941.

                  The election of Volodymyr Zelenskiy on April 21 could potentially signal a modest retreat on this issue. Zelenskiy, who is of Jewish descent, appears to take a milder position on cultural issues that were given precedence under Poroshenko — language, religion, and attitudes toward the World War II-era nationalists. But it is difficult to predict whether this will change Kyiv’s historical memory policies.

                  Lion says that the embassy has consistently pressed the Ukrainian government to rethink its position on this issue on every level and in every consultation it has.

                  “In our eyes, a person who is wearing a Nazi German uniform — it doesn’t matter what he did or what he hasn’t done — he was a part of the army of the Third Reich,” he told the Kyiv Post.

                  “We cannot be silent. We are the State of Israel,” he added. “We are the voice of the ones who are not here to raise their voices.”

                  Lion says he would like Ukraine to teach both sides of its history, showing that, while the nationalists were patriots, they were also part of the Nazi regime.

                  “Ukraine should rethink how the country deals with the past…,” he said. “I’m not telling anyone whom he has to choose for a hero. But I think if you chose somebody you have to teach everything about them.”

                  More broadly, Lion feels Ukraine needs more education on the Holocaust. He believes Ukraine should build a museum at Babyn Yar, the site of the murder of over 33,000 Jews in September 1941 and over 100,000 more Jews and others subsequently.

                  But the problem of education is not unique to Ukraine. Around the world, people are struggling to find ways to teach the Holocaust as fewer survivors remain to tell their stories.

                  Most recently, a new project called Eva Stories transformed the diary of Eva Heyman, a 13-year-old girl who was killed by the Nazis, into short videos for Instagram. Funded and directed by Israeli businessman Mati Kochavi and his daughter Maya, it sought to teach the Holocaust to the social media generation.

                  The project’s videos were also shot in Lviv using Ukrainian actors — many of whom found the film a learning experience.

                  “They didn’t understand quite well what the Jews went through… ” Lion said. “By being actors in the movie, they learned about the Holocaust.”

                  But even with more education, historical memory will likely remain challenging. It is also politically meaningful and emotional for the Ukrainian side.

                  During the May 5 showing of From Slavery to Freedom, Yevhen Chervonenko, a former Zaporizhia Oblast governor, asked dissident Sharansky about how Ukrainian Jews should react to the glorification of Ukrainian nationalists.

                  After Sharansky gave a cautious and measured response, Poroshenko stood up to give his answer.

                  “We must slip out from the blinders of Soviet and Russian propaganda and not spread fakes that will poison the history of the Ukrainian and Jewish peoples,” he said.

                  After briefly praising his administration’s efforts to commemorate Babyn Yar, Poroshenko left the theater.

                  By Matthew Kupfer

                  Kyiv Post