Ukrainian Jewish leader says Russia is the threat

Josef Zissels [Sheri Shefa photo]

TORONTO — Ukrainian-Jewish community leader Josef Zissels was in Toronto last week to urge Canadian Jews not to fall for Russian propaganda that paints Ukraine as a fascist, anti-Semitic country and implored them to lobby the Canadian government to impose aggressive economic sanctions against Russia or risk paying a “very high price” later.

During a visit to The CJN office, Zissels, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress’ chairman, explained that a little more than two months ago, 40,000 Russian troops invaded the Crimean peninsula.

“They came, based on their propaganda, to save the Russian [-speaking] population [and to protect Jews] from the fascists. And for two months, 40,000 Russian soldiers have been looking for fascists and they have not been able to find one,” he said, tongue placed firmly in cheek.

Speaking through a translator, Zissels, who was invited by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter – a non-profit cultural group that promotes stronger ties between Ukrainians and Jews – to talk about what is really happening in Ukraine, said Jews in the west have so easily accepted the Russian propaganda because of Ukraine’s “dark” history with anti-Semitism.

“But Ukraine has changed significantly. The changes happened not only since the Soviet Union broke up, but the changes began in the ’50s and ’60s,” Zissels said, adding that it’s hard for people who have not lived in Ukraine for the past 30 or 40 years to understand that.

“When Russian propaganda says that there are fascists in Ukraine, it’s hard for those who are not able to check the facts not to believe the propaganda.”

Zissels went so far as to “guarantee” the new Ukraine is safe for Jews.

“I’m not saying [anti-Semitism] doesn’t exist. It always exists,” he said. “But we see in the new Ukrainian government that they battle against xenophobia and anti-Semitism… But if they at some point move away from this direction, we will be the first to criticize them.”

Zissels, who was once jailed for six years in Russia as a political prisoner, spoke about the skepticism he faced when he was the first Jewish leader to endorse the Maidan movement, the anti-Russian protest that succeeded in toppling the government of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yankovych.

Many Jews who opposed the Maidan movement were wary of the support it received from a party called Svoboda, which used to hold anti-Semitic views.

“In Svoboda, some of the leaders did make anti-Semitic statements in the ’90s, but they were a marginal group at the time… In recent years, they’ve completely moved away from anti-Semitic propaganda, and because of that, they won places in Parliament, because people stopped being afraid of them,” Zissels said.

He added there are people in the party who are anti-Semitic and have posted disparaging content on their personal blogs, but they’re in the minority and don’t represent the party’s official views.

Zissels also downplayed the significance of leaflets distributed in Donetsk urging Jews to register or risk deportation, saying that it was nothing more than a “provocation.”

“Even the Donetsk Jews aren’t panicking over the flyers, because they understand that it is a provocation, and these flyers didn’t add much to the anxiety, because there is already anxiety because of the militarized situation.”

Rather than focus on the perceived threat of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the international community should focus attention on Russia’s obsession with “renewal of the empire,” Zissels said, adding that it’s imperative to “find a mechanism to stop this aggression. If we don’t stop this in time, then we will have to pay a very high price for this like this we did in the 1940s. In 1935, it was easier to stop, but to stop in 1945, we had to kill 50, 60 million people.”

He said stronger economic sanctions need to be put in place against Russia, which is already struggling economically.

He emphasized the importance of western governments putting pressure on Russia, but said Canada “has done actually quite a lot, because I think Canada understands the situation better than the United States.”

In late February, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada stands “on the side of the Ukrainian people” and offered economic, technical and political support. Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper recalled the Canadian ambassador to Moscow and urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw troops from Ukraine.

“Ukraine today, with this new government is able to solve almost all of its questions, except for one: the Russian aggression. And on this everyone needs to unite. Only together can we stop this and not allow bloodshed.”