Ukrainian Jewish Identity Has Evolved Through Ukraine’s Revolutions

LONDON—“We stood there together with Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, Armenians, and others as a part of one fighting nation.”

With this evocation of ethnic and religious diversity united in solidarity, Ukrainian Jewish leader Josef Zissels delivered the keynote address at the conference “Jews and the Ukrainian Revolution: Future Perspectives” held by the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies in London on June 30, 2014.

Josef Zissels at UCRDC. Photo: Bozhena Gembatiuk-Fedyna

Zissels outlined the evolution of the Jewish community’s relationship with the long-term Ukrainian “revolution” that unfolded over the past several decades: Jews supported Ukraine’s independence in 1991 and started to develop a distinct Ukrainian Jewish identity as opposed to a previous Soviet identification. A segment of the Jewish community supported what Zissels considered to be the “ethnocentric” Orange Revolution of 2004. The revolution of 2014 was less ethnocentric and the spirit of a “Ukrainian political nation” was dominant.

“Today Ukrainian Jews are a part of the Ukrainian political nation which is on its way to Europe,” he said. “The identity of Ukrainian Jews is different nowadays from the identity of Russian Jews.”

Zissels also denied the existence of widespread Ukrainian antisemitism, stating that in 2013 there were just 13 antisemitic incidents in Ukraine as opposed to 700 in the United Kingdom. Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at University College London who tracks far right groups, supported Zissels’s view. He noted the three nationalist parties in Ukraine—UNA-UNSO, Svoboda, and Right Sector—have limited membership and influence and have refrained recently from antisemitic declarations of excesses.

Brandeis University professor Anton Polonsky analyzed recent events in Ukraine from the encouraging perspective of Poland’s accession to the European Union. In 1991 the GDP of both Ukraine and Poland was the same. Today Poland’s GDP is three times larger than that of Ukraine.

Zissels’s talk in London on the Jewish community and Ukraine’s path to Europe follows previous presentations he made in Cracow and Paris.

Born in Tashkent and educated at Chernivtsi University in western Ukraine, Zissels is the chair and founder of the Federation of Ukrainian Jewish Organizations (Vaad) and Vice President of the World Jewish Congress. He was imprisoned for several years in Soviet penal colonies for his work in human rights and with Jewish organizations. He continues an active role in Ukrainian political life. He addressed protesters on the Maidan in Kyiv in 2013. In March 2014, he was an initiator and signatory of a letter requesting Russian President Vladimir Putin to abstain from destabilizing the interim Ukrainian government. (The letter can be accessed here:

Zissels traveled to Ottawa and Toronto this spring as a guest of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. There he met with Canadian legislators, Ukrainian and Jewish community leaders and media to discuss the current political situation. For more on his visit see here.

Interviews with Zissels can be accessed at:

Voices of Ukraine

Canadian Jewish News

Hear an interview with Josef Zissels that aired on May 4, 2014 during The Ukrainian Hour on CHIN Ottawa 97.9 FM. Irena Bell is producer and host of the Ukrainian-language program that runs every Sunday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Previous podcasts can be found at

Part One of interview with Josef Zissels

Part Two of Interview with Josef Zissels