UJE’s Shared Historical Narrative Project

Participants at the Ditchley Park, UK Conference 2009

The Concept

While the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE) is not primarily a scholarly endeavour, importance is attached to the development of a “shared historical narrative” that is based on authoritative scholarship. This shared narrative is envisaged as a single text that respected and acknowledged experts endorse as grounded in historical evidence—a text viewed as providing context for a nuanced understanding of Ukrainian-Jewish interaction and relations over the centuries, inclusive of normal times and times of crisis.

This objective aligns with the UJE’s mission to deepen understanding of the breadth, complexity, and diversity of Ukrainian-Jewish relations, both in the home territory and in lands of resettlement; to treat embedded stereotypes and more firmly secure the foundation for building modern identities on the basis of an authentic connection to the past; and to enable appreciation and empathy for both peoples’ historical experience.

More specifically, the aim is to develop a narrative that

  • is based on authoritative sources, including the extensive research and writing conducted in Ukraine, Israel, North America, and elsewhere over the past two decades;
  • examines the Ukrainian-Jewish relationship not in isolation or within a narrow time frame, but in the broader context of east and central European history, culture, and politics, and which takes into account the range of interactions under successive regimes and in different regions, including interaction with other peoples, over centuries;
  • addresses myths, stereotypes, and possible distortions in the various national historiographies and popular cultures, while fostering an understanding of the circumstances that gave rise to such frames of reference;
  • provides a nuanced account that enhances an understanding not only of the past, but also of its impacts in the present, including the different interpretations, perspectives, and contemporary uses of history in the public sphere in Ukraine, Israel, and elsewhere.

The goal is not a negotiated narrative that offers compromises regarding historical evidence. Rather, it is to scrupulously abide by high standards of scholarship, but at the same time to treat the relationship in an empathetic and integrated manner so as to create a sphere of inquiry in which individuals and communities identifying on national, ethnic, or other markers can see that their perspective is taken into account and that their experience and aspirations are recognized and given a proper hearing.

UJE Roundtables to Date

In 2009 the UJE initiated a series of roundtable discussions, engaging leading scholars/experts from around the world to address key issues relating to the shared history of Ukrainians and Jews. Around thirty participants, representing a range of perspectives, were convened for each of the roundtable meetings.

These roundtables have focused on unresolved and contested issues in the history in a respectful manner centered on informed dialogue. At the same time, a special effort was and is made not to lose sight of the extended periods of normal co-existence.

To date the roundtable discussions have engaged a network of almost two hundred experts/scholars in an examination of issues from the sixteenth century to the end of World War II.

The first roundtable meeting (held in June 2009 in Salzburg at the Schloss Leopoldskron) addressed issues in Ukrainian-Jewish relations in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, under Austro-Hungarian rule, and under tsarist Russian rule up to World War I.  The second roundtable meeting (held at Ditchley Park in the UK in December 2009) focused on the revolutionary era and the interwar years, including the civil war pogroms, the Holodomor/Ukrainian Famine and the Great Terror of the 1930s. A conference in partnership with the Israel Museum and the Hebrew University followed in October 2010 in Jerusalem, with a focus on the cultural dimensions of the Ukrainian-Jewish encounter (in music, art, architecture, literature, folklore, and language). The next roundtable (held in June 2011 in Potsdam at the Cecilienhof and in Berlin in association with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung) coincided with the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union and treated the experience of World War II and the Holocaust on the territory of Ukraine. A more detailed description of these roundtables and working conferences, as well as the programmes and information regarding the participants, is available here.

Several additional roundtables are planned, which will focus on issues relating to the postwar Soviet period, the period since Ukrainian independence, and the contemporary politics of history and memory.

The Shared Historical Narrative Process

Roundtable sessions begin with brief introductions or overviews of existing knowledge setting out the key issues and perspectives relating to the specific topics. Participants then engage in discussion of the topics. The entire proceedings are recorded and transcribed. A “record of discussion” or point-form thematic summary, with attribution, is then prepared and verified by the roundtable participants. Following phases involve drafting the narrative on the basis of the records of discussion, supplemented by content drawn from germane authoritative materials. The draft narrative is then reviewed by the roundtables’ participants, supplemented by a broader network of experts/scholars (including the UJE’s Academic Advisory Council) in a process that aims to be rigorous, transparent, and participatory.

If some aspects of the narrative remain unresolved or contested, reservations and dissenting opinions are fully recorded in the shared narrative text. The goal is to make contested issues more salient and amenable to further treatment, identify issues that call for more research, and explore ways of promoting such research.

The network of scholars/experts engaged in the development of a shared historical narrative has grown to almost two hundred. These include both senior established scholars and outstanding younger scholars. The primary criterion was and is that they be widely respected, authoritative experts on the specific issues being discussed. With a view to outreach and impact beyond the scholarly community, a select group of observers have been invited, including community leaders, public intellectuals, political actors, and media professionals.

Venues are chosen for their resonance in relation to the issues discussed and for offering an atmosphere conducive to reflection and uninhibited discussion, building trust among participants, and inspiring post-meeting cooperation. The value-added (in comparison with conventional conferences) includes the fostering of a network of scholars committed to the goals of the shared historical narrative project, and enhanced opportunities for promoting research on gaps in knowledge identified in the course of the discussions, as well as for disseminating the results of such research.

Products

It is anticipated that the resulting shared historical narrative will provide a foundation for a range of products, including web-based resources, multi-media exhibits, educational materials, and films. Consideration will also be given to adapting it as a university-level textbook.

Challenges

Developing UJE’s shared historical narrative involves a number of challenges, including notably the following:

  • Recognizing and addressing the layers of “received wisdom,” often unexamined, that may characterize the historical understanding embedded in the narratives of both Ukrainian and Jewish communities, or those advanced by third parties. We need to look attentively, for example, at the anti-Semitic propaganda propagated by tsarist Russia, wartime Nazi propaganda (the Zhydokomuna motif), or the Soviet Great Patriotic War motif, alongside suppression of the memory of Soviet crimes and omitting mention of the specific targeting of Jews during the Holocaust.
  • Countering the tendency of historians to preserve the memory of injustices suffered by their own group, which can lead to minimizing the suffering of others or blemishes on their own group. An essential response is to move beyond “competing victimhoods” and to appreciate the range of responses to crisis and violence that occurred in Ukraine and elsewhere, ranging from passivity, helplessness, and indifference, to coerced, circumstantial, or active participation in crimes, to solidarity with the oppressed, to actively saving the lives of others at great personal risk. Respect for evidence and avoiding attribution of collective responsibility are central.
  • Recognizing the importance of taking into account the broader context, including the role played by other key actors, such as Austrians, Germans, Poles, Russians, Romanians, and Hungarians; and the influence of the regional and global forces that shaped Ukrainian-Jewish relations at various times over the long history and through modern times.

In the twentieth century, Jews and Ukrainians both experienced great suffering and gross violations of their natural rights, adding an intense emotional dimension to the narratives of the communities. The object of the Shared Historical Narrative project is to enable both communities to perceive the Ukrainian-Jewish encounter in all its facets, in the context of two historic peoples living side-by-side over many centuries, neither in control of their destinies under imperial rulers of one kind or another, both subject to powerful external currents, both resilient, both rooted in and custodians of the historical memory of their peoples.