David Fishman: "The biggest problem with Putin is his foreign policy"
17.05.2019, Communities of Eurasia
Late last month, Ukraine elected its first Jewish president. Russia is led by a man widely regarded as a friends of the Jews. Romania and Hungary may move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem. How are we to understand all these developments in countries that were deeply anti-Semitic only a short while ago?
To gain some perspective, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Professor David Fishman, an expert on Eastern European Jewish history and the author of three books, including, most recently, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. This award-wining has been translated into several foreign languages, including Lithuanian, Italian, Dutch, Czech, Japanese, and Chinese.
What was your reaction to the news that a Jew, Volodymyr Zelensky, had been elected president of Ukraine, a country that historically has not always been friendly to Jews?
Fishman: Well, I was following the election for many months, so it wasn’t a surprise. I was surprised, though, that it was not even an issue in the campaign. I was expecting at least some people would make a big deal out of the fact that Zelensky is Jewish and not a “real” Ukrainian. But nobody tried to exploit that.
How do you explain the absence of anti-Semitism from this campaign?
I think the hostility to the oligarchs who basically run Ukraine is greater than the hostility toward Jews. The previous president, Poroshenko, was a big businessman and was seen as a failure in terms of making real reforms in Ukraine. He didn’t deliver what he promised, and I think the pent-up anger at him and all the standard politicians in Ukraine was just much bigger than any other issue.
Does Zelensky’s election indicate something about anti-Semitism in Ukraine? Has it decreased in recent decades?
Ukrainians have changed over time. I’m not going to say there’s no anti-Semitism. In fact, I am very worried about the extreme right in Ukraine. Right now they’re engaged in acts of violence against gypsies and, to some extent, [homosexuals], but they are very anti-Semitic and under the right circumstances could also begin attacking Jews and Jewish institutions.
But anti-Semitism ebbs and flows. Right now, it’s at a relatively low point for many reasons, which I can go into if you want.
Some of it is very pragmatic and calculating. Ukraine really needs help from the United States, and everybody understands that Jews play an important role in American life. So you don’t act anti-Semitic if you want to get help from the United States.
Also, five years ago there was a [mini] revolution in Ukraine and the most prominent Jews in Ukraine supported that revolution – very vocally and very visibly. Ukrainians remember that. So I think Jews right now have a pretty positive image in the eyes of most Ukrainians.
What do you make of the fact that Russia – another country with a great deal of anti-Semitism in its past – is now run by a philo-Semite?
I don’t know if I’d call Vladimir Putin a philo-Semite. It’s true that he has not persecuted Jewish life. He’s even supported Jewish life. But the government allows an extreme right-wing Russian nationalism to exist, and I would say there is more anti-Semitism today on the Russian Internet than on the Ukrainian Internet.
So it’s interesting. Putin himself is not anti-Semitic, but he does allow these extremist anti-Semitic groups to function even though he doesn’t allow a democratic opposition to function, for example. So Putin is, a little bit, playing a double game.
The biggest problem with Putin, though, is his foreign policy. The Russian presence in Syria has facilitated Iran’s presence there, which has made life for Israel much, much harder.
You mentioned earlier some practical reasons why Ukrainians may be less hostile to Jews today. But have hearts and minds changed, too? So many Eastern European countries that used to be regarded as anti-Semitic – for example, Poland and Romania are just two examples – seem pro-Jewish and pro-Israel today, which seems unusual.
I’m surprised to hear you say that about Poland. Poland is pro-Israel, but Poland vociferously denies any involvement of Poles in the Holocaust….
What we’re seeing in Eastern Europe is countries that are pro-Israel but [may not be pro-Jewish]. Those are two different things. You can support Israel and say you want the Jews to live in Israel – in fact, you’d rather Jews lived in Israel than in your own country.
So you can be hostile toward your local Jews and supportive of the state of Israel, and I think that’s pretty much the trend in most Eastern European countries.
Has there been no change at all in these populations’ attitudes toward Jews?
I think the long-term trend with the younger generation is toward more pluralism and tolerance, which of course affects the attitude toward Jews. People in their 20s are less anti-Semitic than people in their 60s.
Let me give you an interesting example. A university in Ukraine [recently] gave an honorary doctorate to a history professor who wrote a book about a Ukrainian nationalist thinker from the turn of the 20th century who was also a virulent anti-Semite. In his book, this professor basically whitewashed and justified his anti-Semitism.
When he got his honorary degree, students at university – not one of whom was Jewish – protested: “We don’t want our university to glorify anti-Semitism.” The faculty didn’t have a problem giving an honorary degree to this author, but many students did.
The Jewish Press