In Ukraine protests, young Jews rally with nationalists

The 3-week-old protests in Kiev’s Independence Square — widely known as EuroMaidan — have drawn a number of young Ukrainian Jews into a diverse coalition of liberal youth and opposition party leaders who are calling for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych, an end to corruption and a strengthened social safety net.

The protesters include members of the ultranationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, whose leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has freely trafficked in anti-Semitic stereotypes.

photo/jta-getty images-brendan hoffman Protesters against the Ukrainian government cheer a speaker in Kiev’s Independence Square on Dec. 5.

“If the nationalists are in favor of a regime change in the country, and I am also, then they won’t prevent me from going out into the Maidan with everyone and expressing my opinions,” said Jewish  protester Evgenia Talinovskaya.

On Nov. 30, more than 30 protesters were taken into custody and dozens treated for injuries following a violent confrontation with Ukrainian police in a tactic protesters call “selective prosecution” of opposition leaders. But that wasn’t enough to intimidate the crowds who have occupied the main square of Ukraine’s capital since Nov. 21.

Thousands showed up the following morning, including a young woman carrying a pot of fresh borscht to help the crowd through another cold day on the square.

It was “like a carnival,” said Dmitri Gerasimov, 32, a Jewish klezmer musician who has taken part in the protests. “I didn’t feel any aggression in the crowd. It was like a public holiday.”

While the protests initially were sparked by anger over Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an agreement that would have deepened ties between Ukraine and the European Union, they have since blossomed into a full-blown movement.

While it is difficult to know how much support there is for the movement among young Ukrainian Jews, the country’s orientation toward Europe has proven a divisive issue within its Jewish community. Older Jews tend to be more fearful of Ukrainian nationalists, whose resentment of Russian influence has led them to support a more pro-Europe orientation.

The community “is very split on the issue of the protests,” said Meylakh Sheykhet, Ukraine director for the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union. “Generally speaking, the young generation of Jews, just like other young Ukrainians, support this revolution. But the older generation of Ukrainian Jews, the ones who grew up and were educated in the Soviet system, they are not in support. They are very pro-Russian.”

Right-wing parties such as Svoboda, which garnered 10 percent of the national vote in 2012 parliamentary elections to become the fourth-largest party in Ukraine, bristle at Russia’s influence over their country. That is why they have embraced EuroMaidan.

“Svoboda is … supporting this trend because it goes against the current regime,” said Oxana Shevel, an associate professor of comparative politics at Tufts University.

Ukrainian Jewish leaders have been unnerved by Svoboda, which they consider a threat to community security. The party’s use of anti-Semitic rhetoric also has prompted concern from the European Parliament.

“We fear that this situation will get out of control,” said Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, head of the Jewish community organization in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. “And when there is chaos, minorities will suffer, as our history tells us.”

Other Jewish community officials, including the chief Chabad rabbi of Ukraine, Moshe Azman, have likewise condemned the protests as dangerous for the Jewish community. But those concerns have not been enough to keep Jews from joining the protest movement.

For young Jews, investment in Ukraine’s future is a part of their identity. “I love Ukraine very much,” Talinovskaya said. “My parents are here, my friends are here, and I have no plans on emigrating, which means my children will be born here.”

Other Jews active in EuroMaidan echoed her sentiments. Gerasimov, for one, said EuroMaidan is a protest against a “Russian future” for the country.

“Many Ukrainian Jews who considered themselves Jews first have left Ukraine already,” said Sheykhet. “So those who stayed, and who now make up the majority of the Jewish presence in Ukraine, consider themselves Ukrainian first.”

Anna Furman, 22, said being Jewish is no obstacle to her passionate involvement in the fight for Ukraine’s future. Like other young protesters, she believes a pro-European orientation for Ukraine, and the reforms that will entail, will change her country for the better.

“What’s important is that this is the country we live in, and we are its citizens here and now,” she said.