A Jewish businessman in Ukraine
20.01.2020, Communities of Eurasia
In recent years, little attention has been paid to one of the more remarkable diplomatic turnabouts taking place in Israel’s foreign relations, that of increasingly warm bilateral ties with Ukraine.
For many Jews, mere mention of the country evokes some of our people’s darkest periods, from the lethal pogroms of the mid-17th century to the mass murder at Babi Yar during the Holocaust. In addition, antisemitism remains a concern.
But since the downfall of the Soviet empire and the emergence of an independent and democratic Ukraine, ties between Kiev and Jerusalem have continued to strengthen.
In August 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier to visit Ukraine in two decades. Several years ago, visa requirements between the two countries were significantly relaxed, and a free-trade agreement was signed earlier this year as annual bilateral trade has soared past $1 billion.
Moreover, just several months ago, Ukrainian voters took the historic step of electing a Jew, Volodymyr Zelensky, to serve as the nation’s president, something that would have been unthinkable just 10 or 20 years ago.
In order to better understand these developments, the Magazine recently sat down with Boris Lozhkin, a prominent Ukrainian Jewish businessman and philanthropist who serves as president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and vice president of the World Jewish Congress. In addition to being a successful media magnate, Lozhkin served as head of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine from 2014 to 2016, and then as secretary of the National Investment Council until last year.
After a recent visit to Israel, where he met with a series of dignitaries and decision-makers, and after accepting our condolences over the loss of life in the recent airline tragedy in Iran, Lozhkin shared his thoughts and insights with the Magazine about a variety of topics, ranging from Holocaust education to the conflict in eastern Ukraine to the future of Ukrainian Jewry.
You recently visited Israel and you are a prominent person in Ukraine. How would you describe the nature of the bilateral relationship between the two countries?
From my perspective, the bilateral relationship between Ukraine and Israel is pretty good. You know, for me, in a sense, Israel is partly Ukraine, and Ukraine is partly Israel, partly Jewish. I mean historically. Because the population of Jews before World War II within Ukraine’s borders, in 1939, was approximately 3.5 million. Moreover, I think at least a quarter of today’s Israelis, or perhaps more, are originally from Ukraine or their parents or grandparents were. So these two countries are very close, both historically and in terms of mentality. A lot of Ukrainians – and not just Jewish ones – feel very comfortable in Israel. And, currently, there is very good contact between the governments in Ukraine and Israel. So I think the situation is good.
You mentioned in passing that the two countries have been close historically and that the relationship now is very positive. But we know, of course, that there were much darker periods in our shared history, which included anti-Jewish pogroms and attacks by Cossacks. And a recent study by the Anti-Defamation League found very high levels of antisemitic stereotypes among Ukraine’s populace. What is the current state of antisemitism in the country? In my opinion, the situation regarding antisemitism is quite improved. We do not now have antisemitism on the state level. In Soviet times, there was real state-backed antisemitism, albeit unofficially, and it was quite difficult for Jews to find top jobs or study in top universities. Now, everything is OK. The new president of the Ukraine is a Jew, and the former prime minister was a Jew. A lot of Jewish people serve in the current parliament. So, on a state level, everything is fine.
If you are talking about antisemitism on the ground, well of course it exists. But as for me, Kiev is a much safer place than Brussels or Paris for people wearing a kippah in public.
But I was very surprised by the results of the Anti-Defamation League’s survey regarding antisemitic attitudes. The most painful finding was that 72% of respondents felt that Jews have too much power in the business world and the financial markets. This is quite a disappointing result. It may be due to the influence of some oligarchs, many of whom have Jewish roots. But as far as I see it, Ukraine is one of the most tolerant countries towards Jews in Europe. Were you surprised that Ukraine elected a Jew as president? Could it possibly lead to an antisemitic backlash? You know, I wasn’t surprised about that, because, as I said before, we did have a prime minister who was a Jew. But the election was not about whether a Jew or non-Jew should be president. What was important to the electorate was the person, not his religion or ethnicity. And I don’t foresee any antisemitic backlash because of the president’s Jewishness.
Another history-related question for you. The 17th-century Cossack leader Bogdan Khmelnytsky, who was responsible for the murder of well over 100,000 Jews during what came to be known as the “Khmelnytsky massacre,” is a national hero in Ukraine, and there is even a famous statue of him in the heart of Kiev. But for Jews, of course, his legacy was that of a murderous villain. Is the dichotomy between how Jews and Ukrainians view him an issue?
This is one of the most painful chapters in the history of the Jews in Ukraine. During Khmelnytsky’s time, hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed and it was a great tragedy.
In my opinion, it does not receive sufficient attention in Ukrainian history books, and this is a really very painful issue, as was collaboration during the Holocaust in the 20th century. I believe that Ukraine should be more open about these issues and apologize to the Jewish people because of this, as these were very, very dark moments in Ukrainian history. For Ukraine to say that it is sorry would be a sign of a healthy society that is coming to terms with its past.
So you think more needs to be done in the field of educating the Ukrainian public?
Absolutely. By the way, one of the projects we are preparing now under the rubric of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine is a documentary movie about the history of Ukrainian Jews. We would like to do it in different languages, and we hope that it will be seen not only in Ukraine but throughout the world. Because a lot of Jews, for example in the United States, also have roots in Ukraine. And education both inside and outside of the country, regarding the relations between Jews and Ukrainians, is one of the ways in which we can prevent antisemitism in the country. Another project, which we launched last year, is called Righteous Among the Nations. We have called on mayors and citizens of towns and cities throughout Ukraine to rename streets or squares after one of the more than 2,600 Ukrainians recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. This is important because it shows that there were some Ukrainians who were heroes during World War II and they saved Jewish people. We are promoting tolerance as a part of Ukrainian character, and we have already had 20 streets renamed.
Our goal is to reach 100. In addition, we have asked local authorities to devote one school lesson annually to these Righteous Among the Nations and to do more to teach the younger generation in Ukraine about the Holocaust. More than 1.5 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust in Ukraine. It was the first territory in which most were killed by bullets rather than in concentration camps.
In recent years, the aliyah rate from Ukraine has been climbing sharply, with thousands of Ukrainian Jews moving to Israel each year. To what do you attribute this?
I presume that it is partly a result of the conflict in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, which has produced many refugees. Also, the past several years, in particular 2014-2016, were difficult ones, when the country endured an economic crisis. I don’t think it is because of antisemitism. To some extent, I think there are people looking to find a better life.
Regarding the conflict in the Donbass region, do you think Europe and the West are doing enough to help Ukraine deal with the crisis?
I think the West should be more active and try as much as possible to stop the war there and to support Ukraine in its efforts to find the right solution with Russia. Not only to stop the war, but also to keep the peace in these territories and to finally restore them. Anyway, military support of Ukraine, financial and political support are all extremely important.
In recent months Ukraine has been in the media in connection with the impeachment proceedings against US President Donald Trump. How much attention is that getting in the Ukraine itself? And what sort of sentiment has it aroused in the country there?
You know, of course there is a lot of attention because the United States is the main strategic partner of Ukraine. And, of course, Ukraine is very interested in any issues connected to the United States. Before this scandal, I think the majority of Americans would have had trouble finding where this country is on the map. But, of course, it is not good for Ukraine’s reputation to be linked to such an event.
How would you describe the business environment in Ukraine?
Now the situation is better. And it continues to get better and better because Ukraine is growing year by year. The downturn of 2014-16 was very deep, and so we are coming back from a very low base. In the last two quarters, the GDP has been growing by 4%. I think Ukraine needs at least 6% growth for several years to reach the next level. And I think it is possible.
Ukraine has very good quality agricultural land, much of which is owned by the state. Its privatization, as well as the sale of many government-owned companies, will have a huge impact on the economy, as will growing investment in new technologies, the banking and insurance sectors, as well as infrastructure and ports. The IT industry is now one of Ukraine’s top three exporters. And liberalization of some other markets will also serve as a driver of growth. So I think we have quite good forecasts for the Ukrainian economy in the years ahead.
Are you optimistic about the future of the Jews in Ukraine?
Absolutely. I think that Ukraine is now a comfortable place for Jews. We don’t have exact figures about the size of the community, because the last census of the Ukrainian population was many years ago, but I believe it is over 200,000 Jews. Ukraine has been an important place in Jewish history, from the birth of hassidism to figures such as Golda Meir, Sholom Aleichem and others.
Not everybody really understands the importance of Ukraine in Jewish life, historically and now. And this is one of the things we would like to correct.
By MICHAEL FREUND