An Eyewitness to Ukraine’s Tragedy

Inside the conflict that threatens to tear a nation apart.

ukraine-crisis-euAs mayhem in the Ukraine continues, and the death toll mounts, threatening a possible civil war, a heartwarming story emerges from this Ukrainian tragedy. The story involves Israeli humanitarian aid to injured protestors in Kiev. Ten Ukrainians wounded in clashes were airlifted, and brought to Israel’s Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot. Valeriya Babchuk, a Kaplan Medical Center doctor, on vacation in her native Kiev, volunteered to provide emergency treatment to Ukrainian activists being shot at the “Maidan,” or Independence Square, in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.  

Jeremy Borovitz, 26, a Jewish Service Corps Fellow with the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Kiev was on hand in Philadelphia to relate the story surrounding the “Maidan.” He was hosted by Louis Balcher, the regional representative of Kaplan Medical Center.  Borovitz, a prospective rabbinic student at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, stopped in the Delaware Valley on his way to Israel from Kiev, where he spent a full year. In Kiev, he was involved in many projects including the “Our Shtetl” project, taking him to small villages and, with local Ukrainian non-Jewish students, made short documentary films about the Jewish history of the area.

The situation in the Ukraine has left an indelible impression on the young Borovitz, who worked closely with Ukrainian students seeking a freer, more Western-oriented state for their people. In the meantime, Russian President Putin reduced tension by suggesting that the referendum being staged by pro-Russia separatists in parts of Eastern Ukraine should be postponed. The separatists are seeking to rush the referendum, which they hope will result in an approval for the region to join Russia, much like what happened in Crimea earlier in March of this year.

It was apparent to Putin that open and unmitigated Russian support for the referendum could trigger additional and harsher EU and US sanctions.  Moscow is, however, still opposed to holding presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25, 2014. USA Today reported (May 7, 2014) that “A Ukrainian candidate for president from the country's restive Donetsk region said that Russian President Vladimir Putin's pledge to pull his forces back from the Ukrainian border is ‘very good news,’ and a sign that diplomacy may have a chance.”

Putin would like to see a change in the Ukrainian constitution that will allow for federalism in Ukraine. This would give the regions greater powers, and provide Russia with increased influence over eastern Ukraine, and ultimately over the whole of Ukraine.

Ukrainians in the rest of the country and in particular in the western part of Ukraine have rejected the Russian over-lordship and seek closer ties with the West. To confirm this assertion, this reporter asked Jeremy Borovitz whether the demonstrators at the “Maidan” were genuine democrats who want to see a democratic, Western-oriented Ukraine, or were they simply demonstrating for jobs and better living conditions?

Borovitz observed that “The demonstrations at the ‘Maidan’ began with university students expressing their desire to be part of the West, and pushed for European integration. However, after the students were attacked by the police, it became something much more involved. It morphed into a movement that was simply yearning for some sort of change, for a better government that cares about its people. It swelled as the violence increased, with people simply taking a stand against the injustice they felt was taking place. It was a plea for honesty in government, for a people tired of living in a place that was simply Soviet Union redux, rife with corruption and fear. I went to Maidan a few times, and I was amazed at the sense of community that truly existed there among Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Belarussians, was a civil society created by individuals in a country where civil society has fallen short of the mark.”

Joseph Puder (JP): Is the Svoboda Party in the Ukraine anti-Semitic in nature or merely ultra-nationalist, and did President Vladimir Putin have a point in characterizing the demonstrators in the Maidan as anti-Semitic hooligans?

Jeremy Borovitz (JB): The Svoboda party certainly has anti-Semitic tendencies, as does Right Sector. However, they have been extremely open since the protest began, and have tried to make entreaties to the Jewish community. No anti-Semitic acts or comments have been tolerated since the protests began. In the end, they are much more anti-Russian than anti-Semitic. That being said, they are not as popular as they seem (under 10%, if you go by presidential polls), and nationalist parties seem much stronger in other parts of Europe. They also do not play a large role in the current government, which has Jews holding high positions, including the Deputy Prime Minister Volodia Groisman, whose father lives in Israel.   

Putin was trying to paint all the protestors as anti-Semitic for his own political purposes. Many Jews have been involved in the protests, many were in leadership roles. There was even a Jewish self-defense brigade, whose leader served in the IDF and wears a Kippah. I believe that Putin has been the one to spark most of the anti-Semitic incidents, desiring to paint the protests as the work of right-wing nationalists being responsible, in order to sway world Jewry to his side.

JP: What has been the Israeli angle in the story you described?

JB: Israel has been extraordinary in the willingness to take on 10 injured protestors and treat them in Israel. Of the 10, five have already been sent home with a clean bill of health. Kaplan Medical Center treated the injured Ukrainian protestors without any promise of future payment, albeit, the bill has since been paid by Israelis, Americans and Canadians. Four of the protestors arrived unable to walk. Only one is still in a wheelchair, and even though Ukrainian doctors put his chances at 10%, Israeli doctors now say it is 50/50 that he will be able to eventually walk on his own. A group of over 100 Israeli volunteers have cared for the injured men and their families who came with them.

JP: Where do you see the Ukraine in the next few years, and is the Jewish community fully integrated in Ukrainian life?

JB: I hope that Ukraine, in five years, will be free, independent, secure, and a part of the global community. However, I fear that the current Russian aggression, which is being met by very little or only symbolic resistance from the West, will severely harm Ukraine in both the short term and long term. I believe that Putin will go as far as he thinks he can get away with, and as long as he is unchecked by the U.S. and Europe, he will continue his westward march.

The Jewish community is very much integrated into Ukrainian life. Many Jews were active in the protest movement, and are involved in politics, the arts, business, etc. This, however, is not to say that there is no anti-Semitism in Ukraine. There is. But I do not feel that the level is higher than in most European countries, and certainly it is less than in places like France. I wore my Kippah on the streets of Kiev, which I could not do in other places in Europe. 

Borovitz, like many others, fears that if Russian aggression goes unchecked, the Ukrainian tragedy will spread elsewhere. Yet, the indomitable spirit of the young Ukrainian protestors seeking a free, open and tolerant society may overcome the odds facing them.

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