As the Orange Revolution plays out in the streets of Kiev, half a world away in Brooklyn, Jewish emigres from Ukraine are reflecting the same split regarding that country’s ongoing political crisis as their countrymen back home.
Those from Kiev and the western part of the country generally favor the pro-Western Viktor Yuschenko for president, while those from the east and south back the pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
But most of the emigres surveyed from both sides of the Ukrainian political divide believe both candidates are anti-Semitic or have anti-Semites among their high-level supporters. And most expressed relief that they are able to watch the crisis unfold from a distance rather than being caught up in it.
Ukrainian Jewish emigres here, who comprise a plurality of the more than 200,000 ex-Soviet Jews in the New York area, were interviewed as the country’s Supreme Court invalidated the Nov. 22 election runoff won by Yanukovych. His victory by 3 percentage points apparently was due to massive fraud by supporters. A new election is set for Dec. 26.
The Supreme Court decision, which came after weeks of massive street protests by Yuschenko forces in the center of Kiev virtually shut down the Ukrainian government, was seen as a stinging rebuke both to the current president, Leonid Kuchma, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kuchma worked hard to ensure that Yanukovych, his protege, would succeed him. Putin also openly backed Yanukovych, but argued in recent days that any election rerun should have two new candidates.
“I have been in touch with my friends back in Kiev who are involved in the protests, and I never thought Ukrainians could be so smart and organized as they are acting now,” said Yanina Abramov, 37, a job counselor at NYANA who emigrated from Kiev eight years ago.
Abramov was enthusiastic about Yuschenko, saying he is “a supporter of democracy, whereas Kuchma’s government is like the Mafia and Yanukovych committed violent crimes in his youth.”
Does Abramov wish she were in Kiev taking part in the protests?
“Absolutely not,” she said. “If I were there I would feel afraid of anti-Semitism. Ukrainians in general hate both Jews and Russians, but have killed a lot more Jews.”
Annetta Goldberg, a businesswoman in her 50s, came here from Kiev at the beginning of the 1990s after participating in the Jewish and human rights movement there.
Given the history of Ukrainian anti-Semitism, Goldberg said she has been surprised that many of her Jewish friends in Kiev are demonstrating for Yuschenko.
“I talked by phone to one friend in Kiev who works at the Judaica Institute and has been very active in the protests,” Goldberg said. “I told her I thought the two sides are not so different and that she shouldn’t forget who she is. She replied that I am too far away to understand and she feels compelled to play a part in the battle for democracy.”
However, Tatyana Rapaport, 45, a community organizer who visited her former hometown of Kiev last summer for the first time in 15 years, and whose sister is taking part in the demonstrations there, had a much different perspective.
“I used to be apathetic about politics, both Ukrainian or American, but now I feel strongly supportive of the democracy movement there,” Rapaport said. “Hundreds of thousands of people who were beaten down their entire lives are getting on their feet and demanding control over their destiny.
“This is an inspiring event not only for Ukraine but for all of humanity,” she said.
Bella Akhmechet, a former bookkeeper in her late 60s from Odessa, which is in a Russian-speaking part of Ukraine that mainly supports Yanukovych, sees both candidates as venal and anti-democratic. But she is especially opposed to Yuschenko, whom she accuses of “trying to win the presidency through a kind of coup d’etat with the support of the United States and Europe.”
Akhmechet asked, “What kind of democracy is it when you close down the capital of the country and damage the economy by shutting factories and railroads, as Yuschenko’s supporters have done? Don’t forget that in Lviv [a hotbed of pro-Yuschenko support in western Ukraine], swastikas have been daubed on walls in recent days with the slogan ‘Jews and Muscovites Out!’
“Even if Yuschenko himself is not anti-Semitic,” she said, “many of his supporters are.”
Akhmechet would like to see elections postponed for a year, with Kuchma left to run the country in the interim.
Yakov Bogoslavski, a 49 year-old ambulance driver who emigrated here eight years ago from the eastern city of Kharkov, has a similar perspective.
“Both Yanukovych and Yuschenko are thieves, but I prefer Yanukovych,” he said. “It is clear that Yuschenko is in the pocket of big business interests who will squeeze the working class more than the former Communist apparatchiks gathered around Kuchma and Yanukovych. I also fear that if Yuschenko wins, the eastern regions of the country are likely to secede, which would be sad for the country.”
Bogoslavski added, “I am sure both candidates are anti-Semites, but Jew hatred is worse in western Ukraine among Yuschenko’s supporters. The Jews who have remained in Ukraine owe a lot to Kuchma for keeping anti-Semitism pretty much under wraps for the 10 years he was in power. For that reason alone I think they should support Yanukovych.”