WORLD AFFAIRS.  Mossad’s apparent involvement in the recent kidnapping of a Palestinian in Ukraine—he was whisked off the Kharkiv-Kyiv train on February 19th—has raised important and awkward questions about the highhandedness of the Israeli security service on the one hand and the complicity, ignorance, or incompetence of the Ukrainian security service on the other. But the subsequent evasions by both Ukrainians and Israelis may be the most interesting thing about this affair. I may be reading too much into the silence, but it’s almost as if they were determined not to go there—with there being the unbearably tangled nature of Ukrainian-Jewish relations.

As students of Ukrainian-Jewish relations know, both sides appear to be trapped in a vicious circle described well by the historian Henry Abramson:

Students reflecting on the dual genocides that Ukraine endured during the twentieth century cannot avoid the cruel paradigm of Ukrainian-Jewish history, in which each group constructs competing and often mutually exclusive narratives of suffering at the hands of the other. Viewed from afar, the pendulum of abuse and violence seems clear: the Jewish orendars exploit the Ukrainian peasantry, who exact terrible revenge in 1648-49 and the Kolivshchyna; Jewish Russophiles undermine the fledgling Ukrainian state, which is then submerged in the bloody pogroms of 1919. Convinced that the Ukrainian national movement represents a distinct threat both physical and ideological, Jews join the Communist Party, and both engineer and enforce the policies that lead to the Holodomor; Ukrainians retaliate with widespread collaboration with the Nazis in the Holocaust.

Is there any way out of this cycle of mutual recriminations?

Israel’s President Shimon Peres suggested one solution on November 25, 2010, when, while on a state visit to Kyiv, he enjoined Ukrainians to “forget history.” Taken to its logical conclusion, Peres’s proposal would also have Jews forget history, with the presumably happy result that both sides could forge relations on the basis of current concerns and not past memories. Great idea, except for one thing: no one, especially in today’s hyper-historicized and information-saturated environment, could possibly follow Peres’s advice. And, even if someone could, who would be first to forget?

Another approach might entail stepping back from the mutual recriminations and, by trying to empathize with both sides, hoping to establish common grounds and common assumptions for viewing both Ukrainians and Jews. One possible starting point would be to acknowledge that both nations are, well, human—and, thus, equally rational or equally irrational as well as equally prone to good or equally prone to evil. Another would be that both nations are not monoliths, but agglomerations of individual human beings, with all their strengths, weaknesses, and peccadillos.

Just this search for commonality—heavily laced with attempts at scholarly objectivity—pervades the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter, a privately funded initiative established in 2008 by Adrian Karatnycky of New York and Alti Rodal of Toronto. The UJE’s aim is “to enable the two formerly stateless peoples, sharing memory (from differing perspectives) and space (in the home territory, and in lands of resettlement) to understand each other’s historical experience, identities, and narratives, to treat embedded stereotypes, and to more firmly secure the foundation for building modern identities (and interaction) on the basis of greater measures of comprehension and mutual respect.” The UJE has already organized a number of excellent conferences with no-holds-barred discussions of a whole range of painful issues and has planned a series of path-breaking publications. The question, or challenge, facing the UJE, of course, is whether the work of academic conferences can percolate into the popular consciousness.

The same search, but this time imbued with emotional sensitivity, underpins an excellent documentary film, Three Stories of Galicia, which hopes to find commonalities by revealing “the intimate stories of three courageous individuals who took it upon themselves to preserve the dignity of the human spirit.” The accounts ring true, because the technically expert film avoids both pathos and bathos by letting a Jewish man, a Ukrainian woman, and a Polish priest tell their own stories in their own voices. As the two filmmakers, Olha Onyshko and Sarah Farhat, say, “When we set out to make this film four years ago, we wanted to bring peace to the hearts of the people of Galicia and to their descendants that are now spread all over the world. That is why we decided to reflect the perspectives of the three major ethnic and religious groups that used to live on that land: Jews, Ukrainians and Poles. We wanted all three groups to have a chance to hear the other side’s perspective and hopefully feel some sympathy towards people who were formerly perceived as enemies.” Once again, the intent is noble, but will groups learn, or want to learn, from the stories of three individuals?

If they don’t, one could just seek refuge in the absurd. My own novel, The Jew Who Was Ukrainian or How One Man’s Rip-Roaring Romp through an Existential Wasteland Ended in a Bungled Attempt to Bump off the Exceptionally Great Leader of Mother Russia, grapples with many of the same issues as the UJE and Onyshko and Farhat by relating the blackly comedic story of a man whose Ukrainian mother was a Nazi concentration camp guard and hates Jews and whose Jewish father was a Stalinist butcher and hates Ukrainians. The hero of the story struggles to find meaning at the intersection of Hitler’s Holocaust and Stalin’s Gulag. He doesn’t, by the way. Indeed, who could?

Perhaps that question can suggest how to escape the never-ending Jewish-Ukrainian recriminations. Perhaps the only way out is for both Ukrainians and Jews to take the exact opposite of Peres’s advice and to remember history with a vengeance, choke on it until they all turn blue, and then, while spluttering and gasping for air, realize that it may be time to move on and smell the roses. Then, let the historians fight it out. After all, that’s what they get paid to do.

Alexander J. Motyl


Ukrayinska Dumka


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