Ukraine's Chief Rabbi dishes on politics, citizen safety and the country's future
By Yochonon Donn
Why, despite being abroad when strife broke out, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich is immediately heading home
Returning from a Manhattan press conference with Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), during which the Eastern European nation’s plight was highlighted, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich said he looked forward to a Tuesday meeting with key members of the opposition, who he described as having a working relationship with.
While tensions in Ukraine's streets have decreased, Rabbi Bleich acknowledges the existence of vigilante groups -- some armed -- marauding.
“Don’t forget, they just finished a revolution. There’s a lot of ammunition, there’s a lot of people with guns out there on the street and nobody turned them in yet,” he observed.
Still, Rabbi Bleich has witnessed turbulent times at home before. He was a religious pioneer in the rebuilding of the Ukrainian Jewish community having arrived in Kiev from Brooklyn as an emissary of the Stoliner Rebbe in 1989, in the early post-communist years.
There have been attacks against Ukrainian Jews since the riots began in December over concerns that Yanukovych was bringing the country into Russia’s orbit, rather than the West as he had promised. But instead of fretting or encouraging parishoners to flee, the rabbi responded by hiring a security company to protect the campus housing his synagogue, yeshivah and social service operations that serve Kiev’s 65,000 to 70,000 Jews. His community, he stressed, has not been a conspicuous target since.
“There is a certain amount of order there and there is no looting, even in [Yanukovych’s] residences, which were open to the public throughout Ukraine,” Rabbi Bleich said. “You know, when Saddam Hussein’s residences were opened to the public they were looted and ripped apart. Nothing was touched in any of [the Ukrainian leader’s] residences. People were warned and told not to touch anything.”
Are police doing regular patrols?
Police are nowhere to be seen. They are afraid to show their faces over there.
So who is keeping order?
You have certain patrols that were put together.
Oleksander Turchinov, speaker of the parliament, was appointed interim president. Do you know him?
I’m meeting him on Tuesday, G0D willing. He was the deputy [of Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition leader who was released from prison over the weekend] all along. He’s been with her throughout her political career. He was the chairman of the House; because of that he’s the acting president also.
Will he be running for president in the upcoming elections?
I don’t think he’s in the race. It’s either going to be [Pyotr] Poroshenko or [Arseniy] Yatsenyuk (both members of the Tymoshenko’s Batkyvshchina party). If Poroshenko gets to be prime minister now, he has a good chance to become president afterwards.
Do you have relationships with any of the candidates?
With all of them.
Where does Oleh Tyahnybok of the Svaboda party stand in all this? You have described him in the past as anti-Semitic.
He’s a player; his party is in the coalition. But even the Ukrainian nationalists who I met this morning say that he discredited himself during the [talks]. People understand that we have to start a healing process, and the healing process has to be, we are bringing people together; it can’t be a continuation of the division.
And Tyahnybok does not want unity?
I don’t know if he wants it or if he’s not able to do it.
Will he be part of the next ruling coalition?
Is his party similar to Greece’s Golden Dawn party, which was marginalized by Europe who sees it as anti-Semitic?
He’s not like the Golden Dawn because his party is not built on anti-Semitism, his party is built on nationalism. The problem is that he does have within his party people that identify with neo-fascist views.
What percentage of Ukraine’s population is anti-Semitic?
We can’t know but Svaboda got 10 percent of vote in the last parliamentary elections, [up from] 1 percent in the previous election. But now he definitely transformed himself with the whole situation so he got himself a lot more [attention].
You worked well with Yanukovych. Do you feel bad for the way things turned out for him?
Yanukovych made a lot of mistakes and I think it’s his own fault to a great extent that it ended up the way it did. It was because of obstinacy; he’s an akshan. He should have sat down and negotiated. If he would have negotiated he would have still been president until the next election. The opposition was not looking to throw him out. He was thrown out because of the way he acted toward the people.
The whole thing started not because he didn’t sign [the trade agreement] with Europe, in my opinion. It started because of the way he didn’t sign. If he would have come to the people then and said, “Listen, I can’t sign now, I have to push it off,” and explained what he was doing, I don’t think we would have been in a situation that we are today.
But the fact is, he didn’t respect the people, he didn’t respect the opposition, he didn’t respect the people of Ukraine. He was given a mandate to go and make a deal with Europe. When he didn’t sign — and not only did he not sign, he also made a secret trip in November to Russia, to Moscow, and made a secret deal with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. People didn’t like that.
Were you surprised that things collapsed so quickly over the weekend?
No. I already knew on Friday after he signed [the truce] that he wasn’t going to be around for more than another couple of days, a week at most. Because the people on the streets weren’t agreeing with the truce, they weren’t willing to take it. They werenready to take anything less than his resignation. And he didn’t have any support, his people deserted him, his party deserted him.
It was surprising that Yanukovych kept such a palatial residence, with pools and zoos. Was he known to be personally wealthy?
That was built personally with his own money. The question is, where did he get his money from? But no question about it: there was a lot of corruption going on, they stole money from people, they stole businesses. He and his sons became billionaires after he came into office.
When are you planning on returning to Ukraine?
I hope to meet some of the candidates [in Ukraine] on Tuesday,G0D willing.
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Yochonon Donn, a periodic JWR contributor, is political and local news editor at Hamodia, the Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry.
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© 2014, Hamodia, the Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry