Roman Kabachiy: In a way, Zionism is a response to antisemitism

What is Zionism, on what basis was it formed, and what should be done to make people understand that there is no antisemitism in Ukraine? These questions are discussed by Roman Kabachiy, a senior researcher at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War.

What is Zionism, and when did it begin?

Roman Kabachiy: Antisemitism emerged much earlier than Zionism and involved reasons for rejecting the Jews as a religion and as a people. When the Romans expelled the Jews from Judea in the 1st century AD, they had antisemitism. However, both words, Zionism and antisemitism, first appeared in the 19th century.

Zionism is a movement for returning to the historical homeland. In other words, even people who did not intend to move to the Land of Israel but belonged to the Zionist movement believed that the Israeli state had to be formed. The Jews had to return there. One of the foundations of Zionism is Jewish support for Israel. Now, a mere 40% of the world's Jews live in Israel. The largest number of Jews live in the USA, especially after the extermination of Jews during the Second World War.

Antisemitism is directed only against Jews, even though the term itself may suggest that it concerns speakers of Semitic languages, among whom only five percent are Jews.

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah on the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Circa 1910. Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress.

On what basis was Zionism formed?

Roman Kabachiy: In a way, Zionism is a response to antisemitism. The Jews realized that they had to have their own homeland to avoid persecutions, pogroms, and being told, "Your culture is not like ours." Thus, the emergence of Israel was a response to the Holocaust. The leaders of the state of Israel adopted a literal reading of the phrase "never again," resolving not to let anyone who might come up with racial theories to persecute the Jews because they were different.

Incidentally, to answer your question about Zionism used as a pejorative term, we, as the successors of the Soviet Union, are the carriers of this attitude. We have not rid ourselves of the belief that Zionism is just a social movement for establishing the state of Israel.

Each country has a different approach. For example, Russians in Russia do not often encounter foreigners. When Ukraine was under Nazi occupation, our ancestors saw these Germans. Then, some Red Army soldiers who entered Europe saw how people lived there. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Russia's population has not seen foreigners. Russia invented the myth of "scabby Yids" but did not see them sometimes. On the other hand, if we take Western Europe now, 80 years since the Second World War, there are very strong left-wing movements there, even though the occupation regime was much lighter than in our lands.

A few years ago, all of Europe resisted the influx of refugees from Syria, and now they have taken up the task of defending Muslims. That's the current trend.

Israel has the right to self-defense

Roman Kabachiy: I went on a press trip to Israel organized for journalists from the CIS countries. We were at a military base near the Gaza Strip, which was later attacked by terrorists. What I saw was a prosperous state, which was created in the desert and relied on drip irrigation to produce multiple crops per year. Why doesn't the Gaza Strip want to be equally prosperous? The reason lies in their ideology of hatred toward all things Jewish. And they infect other Muslim countries in the world with this hatred. However, as we can see, neither Jordan nor Egypt is in a hurry to help Gaza because they are obviously also to blame for the attack.

Infographics: Word and deed.

In my opinion, Ukraine should accept that it is a tolerant country. Jews tend to adopt the culture of the dominant nation. Now we have a situation where the Jews are finally adopting Ukrainian rather than Russian dominant influence. We have pillars that help build up Ukraine. And we have to see it.

We must learn to reject accusations of antisemitism, which we do not have, and often direct our gaze toward those Jews who have brought fame to Ukraine.

What should be done to help people see that there is no antisemitism in Ukraine?

Roman Kabachiy: We should work with Israel and Yad Vashem to look for positive stories so that more Ukrainians would be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. An example is a film made by the director Grzegorz Linkowski in collaboration with the priest Stefan Batruch, both from Lublin. They have investigated why Yad Vashem does not want to recognize Andrey Sheptytsky as Righteous Among the Nations, even though Sheptytsky saved many Jews. Ukraine must engage in both cultural and historical diplomacy and recognize that history is more important than political relations for certain countries. Israel and Poland are two examples here. As a historian, it is sometimes strange for me to see Poles' pompous fascination with their history. Still, I accept it, recognizing that this is a different nation entitled to this kind of attitude. It's the same story with Israel. There are no other Jews; they will promote their national interest.

We need to learn to work with this nation to avoid both hurting it and giving up our ground. If someone watched how the Jews were destroyed, they were saving their own lives. That is, if Ukrainians observed the extermination of Jews, this does not mean that they were complicit. It's like now Russia is firing at people in occupied cities. The Russians are the ones who are shooting — we are not killing ourselves. It is necessary to be clearly aware of who does what and where.

The devil is always in the details. Why did the 1941 Lviv pogrom take place? Who was behind it? Today, while preparing for this conversation, I read an interesting thing: Chekists of Jewish origin were much more susceptible to the influence imposed by the authorities. The reason was that they broke away from their ethnic way of life but were never accepted as "our own" by the majority of the population. That is, the authorities cynically used the fact that individual Jews supported leftist ideas and wanted this revolution. For them, it was an opportunity to assert themselves. And then, when the Germans came, they exploited it skillfully.

But there are also positive examples. For example, another film by Grzegorz Linkowski is about a man who baptized Jews, for which he was first sent to prison and then to a concentration camp, where he died in March 1944. Such examples must be shown and remembered.

Is it possible to break the cycle of returning to antisemitism?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: What do you think is causing the fact that we are again entering this circle?

Roman Kabachiy: We are a little spoiled by the fact that our current Jews are deeply embedded in society. Hasidim come to us only as guests. We see this branch of traditionalist Jews once a year. It's hard to understand what Ukrainians felt during the Second World War, when there were many more Jews, and they were more closed. At one time, an annual three-week course on Jewish culture was organized at the City History Center in Lviv. I took this course. We traveled around visiting ruined synagogues and the remaining Jewish cemeteries. And then I caught myself thinking that the closed nature of this culture was objectively the cause of antisemitism. In many respects, Jews feel and call themselves chosen. But this is virtually non-existent [among Jews] in Ukraine now.

Now, we have the Menorah Center in Dnipro, which doesn't bother anyone. No one insults men or boys with side curls who go to prayer in Kyiv's Podil district. We have learned to live with it. We perceive the Jews as an independent people. This is a culture that is little known to us. A friend of mine was once in the local history museum in Uman, and she asked: "Where is the section on the Hasidim?" The reply was: "Well, it's a local history museum." In other words, the management of this museum is oblivious to the fact that Uman used to be a predominantly Jewish town. We have no awareness of this. This is already a matter of history.

We will not get the Crimea without Crimeans. The Crimean Tatars I know are very pro-Ukrainian, but they mostly live in Ukraine because if they were in the Crimea, they would simply be behind bars. A photographer I know told me after the occupation of 2014: "Well, I'm sorry. What is important to us is the Crimea and our presence there." This is the main thing for them; they don't want to go somewhere else.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Translated from the Ukrainian by Vasyl Starko.

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