Interview: Oleksandr Feldman
A leading industrialist and philanthropist in one of the diaspora’s largest—if least-known—Jewish communities, Oleksandr Feldman, 53, is serving his fourth term in the Verkhouna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. He is founder-president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and chairman of a national association of minorities, which defends the rights of over 200 ethnic member organizations in the country. He has also created a series of global interfaith forums.
Q. Ukraine still has a sizable Jewish community. What’s happening there?
A. Though decimated during the Holocaust, Ukraine has the fifth-largest Jewish community in the world and the third-largest in Europe, with a vibrant history dating back 1,000 years. My goal is to help nurture its renaissance now that Ukraine has been freed from the shackles of communism and is on its path to democracy.
Q. What are your most important initiatives?
A. The first is a national effort, for which I hope to gain international support, to make sure every Jewish mass gravesite in Ukraine is identified. During World War II, hundreds of sites became the final resting places for tens of thousands of Jews who were dragged from their homes and massacred. These victims are our grandparents and cousins and we cannot allow their murders to go unnoticed. Using advanced mapping techniques and grueling research, we work hard to identify these sites and ensure that the murdered are memorialized. The Nazis and their collaborators extinguished their lives; we can do everything possible to at least preserve their memories.
Second, I am honored to head the project to develop the Museum of Ukrainian Jewish History in Kiev. This will be a multimillion-dollar effort to build a facility that will help preserve our history and culture to share with the world. It will, of course, include considerable mention of the hardships we’ve faced over the generations but will be inspired by an underlying sense of pride in our community.
Q. From the Middle Ages to the Holocaust, Ukrainian anti-Semitism is notorious. Does that legacy persist?
A. Anti-Semitism has existed throughout the modern period. During the czarist period, pogroms were a cruel reality that was carried over into the 20th century, when Jews became the scapegoats for many of the problems that the Ukrainian society faced. During World War II, all too many Ukrainians were complicit in Nazi crimes. Many of the worst acts of genocide, most notably at Babi Yar, were committed on Ukrainian soil.
At the same time, there were Ukrainians who risked their lives saving Jews. A few thousand Ukrainians have been recognized by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I firmly believe that in the post-Soviet era much has changed and our society has become more similar to the types of pluralism and tolerance that exist in the West. At the same time, we cannot erase centuries of hatred overnight. Anti-Semitism remains ingrained in the minds of many Ukrainians, particularly the less educated who ignore the realities of the world and only know what their parents and grandparents thought.
Q. How do you use the past to change the future?
A. Later this year, I will host an international conference on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the infamous 1913 Russian Empire blood libel in which a Ukrai- nian Jew, Menahem Mendel Beilis, was wrongly accused of murder and became the target of a national anti-Semitic campaign despite his proven innocence. The Beilis Trial was our nation’s Dreyfus Affair, and Beilis’s heroism and unyielding resolve to resist his accusers remain symbols of what must be done in the face of rampant anti-Semitism. We didn’t let Jew hatred define us in 1913, and we certainly won’t let it define us today in 2013.
Q. For Ukrainian Jews, is the glass half full or half empty?
A. Enormous strides have been made in eradicating hatred from our society, but I’m the first to admit that much remains to be done. Most troubling is the recent rise to power of the Svoboda Party—a democratically elected party [that] has exploited anti-Semitism to attain some influence in Parliament. I was horrified to witness the Svoboda Party gain over 10 percent of the national vote. Like all ultranationalist parties, they campaigned on a message [of] fear, claiming that foreigners and minorities are trying to take over the country. Taking a page from the playbooks of criminals like Joseph Goebbels, Svoboda aims to inflame hatred. If history has taught us anything, it is that hatred never ends with words alone but will soon escalate to far more violent expressions.
Q. You recently visited Washington. What was the message you took with you to America?
A. We had the opportunity to meet with leading members of Congress and key figures in the State Department with the basic message that anti-Semitism is not a local problem but a global one. I urged them to look at history to appreciate what happens when anti-Semitism is ignored. Everyone we met committed to doing everything necessary to keep this issue at the forefront of public concern. I believe that Jews the world over can feel confident that the American political leadership understands that anti-Semitism is truly an issue of international security and will always be addressed with the utmost concern.
In Kiev, I know that President Viktor Yanukovych also appreciates the importance of this issue. Never before has the leader of my country been so open and positively predisposed to the Jewish community, which in turn is growing and developing a new maturity and high level of involvement in many key areas of our national life: economic, cultural, political. The trip further gave me the inspiration to strengthen my active ties with other organizations around the world fighting anti-Semitism.
Q. In Kiev you have created a series of global interfaith forums, some of which are held inside the parliament. What do you hope to achieve?
A. I founded the Kiev Interfaith Forum to enable the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and like-minded organizations to hold a series of conferences. Religious figures, academics and politicians have contributed to these events from an array of faiths and countries. Jews, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists from nations such as Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Germany, Israel and many others have come together, united in their desire to improve the human condition. The core goals of these gatherings are to not only build bridges of understanding between faiths and the international community, but to seek constructive methods with which to promote coexistence and partnerships for the betterment of humanity. The interfaith forums have explored such themes as religion’s role in a global society and the causes of—and potential resolutions to—modern religious conflict. In a session dissecting the role of the media in shaping the public’s opinions of religion, the ultra-Orthodox rap entertainer Shyne spoke movingly about how, through faith, one can coexist and even flourish within almost any medium and thrive in the professional arena without compromising a personal value system. So it’s not just dry theologians!
Q. Can you elaborate on the plans for the Museum of Ukrainian Jewish History?
A. Over the past several years, utilizing modern multimedia tools designed by leading museum developers, I have been proudly spearheading a mission to develop a museum to serve as an anchor for our community as it redefines itself. Telling the story of the Jews of Ukraine will enable people from throughout my nation, and indeed worldwide, to better appreciate the remarkable contribution that Jews have made to the country and to the world as well as better understand the tragedies that have unfolded. Today, the influence of Ukrainian Jews carries a global impact and our unique traditions have affected communities across the diaspora. I envision the museum serving as an educational resource for my fellow Ukrainians and becoming a cultural and tourist attraction for the myriad of visitors who come to Kiev each year.
Q. What are your upcoming initiatives?
A. I will continue striving to raise the profile of Ukraine’s rich Jewish history and the reemerging community in the world by encouraging global Jewish tourism and working in the political sphere. I will continue to bring our message to Washington, to build awareness among my American counterparts as well as with the American public.