Josef Zissels, VAAD chairman and former Soviet prisoner of conscience, visits Canada and the United States

Josef Zissels, one of Ukraine’s leading Jewish activists, visited the United States and Canada at the end of April to discuss how the current political unrest in his homeland is affecting the Jewish community. He also encouraged the Ukrainian and Jewish Diasporas to increase pressure on their respective governments to take more aggressive measures against Russia to stop destabilizing Ukraine.

In New York, he appeared at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research the Ukrainian Museum and met with the leadership of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the World Jewish Congress. In Canada, he met with national politicians and spoke at a gathering of Ukrainian and Jewish leaders, who gathered at Toronto’s Lipa Green Centre. Zissels urged the two communities to work closely together to counter Russian propaganda about Ukraine.

In his appearances, Zissels stressed three points: Ukraine’s informational campaign countering Russian propaganda must be more robust and effective; the West must use stronger economic measures against Moscow to stop its aggression or it will pay a higher price later, and NATO must also be ready to defend democracy anywhere in the world.

“That does not mean it has to use military force,” he noted.

“The current sanctions are like a mosquito biting an elephant,” Zissels told Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Employment and Social Development and Minister for Multiculturalism.

Zissels, a former dissident who spent six years in Soviet prisons, has been a long-time supporter of Ukraine’s pro-democracy movement. He was the first Ukrainian Jewish leader to publically support protesters on Kyiv’s Euromaidan.

Despite Moscow’s efforts to depict Ukraine and its current leadership as fascist and antisemitic, Zissels noted the number of antisemitic incidents in Ukraine has actually fallen. Today it boasts one of the lowest rates in Europe, according to studies conducted by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, where Zissels is Chairman of the General Council.

Still, Zissels said he expected emigration by Jews from Ukraine to Israel would rise in 2014 because of general instability in the country.

Zissels established Ukraine’s first Jewish organization in the town of Chernivtsi. Today he also heads VAAD, the Confederation of Jewish Organizations and Communities, an organization that represents 265 organizations in 65 cities of Ukraine.

Along with community leaders and politicians, Zissels met with various media outlets, including the Canadian Jewish News. His interview with the newspaper can be found at