The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a much respected New York based organization focused on combatting anti-Semitism and hatred in general throughout the world, has legitimately and understandably raised ongoing concerns about comments made by Svoboda’s leaders. Although its approach needs fine tuning coupled with a fuller understanding of Ukrainian history not Russified or marginalized by detractors of the country’s unique culture and language, ADL’s attention should be welcomed and applauded. Ukraine has the potential to be a better, stronger democracy because of ADL.
Recently, Inter-fax Ukraine reported Svoboda leader, Oleh Tiahnybok, denied the existence of anti-Semitism in his party. Tiahnybok told TVi news and as reported by Inter-fax, “I have repeatedly said … Svoboda is not an anti-Semitic organization. If you have any comments on our views, go to court. But nobody will, because everyone understands that even biased Ukrainian courts cannot pass any sentence against Svoboda because we do not violate Ukrainian laws.” His comments came after a Svoboda Member of Parliament (MP) referred to actress Mila Kunis as “zhydovka,” a denigrating term for Jewish women.
Clearly, Tiahnybok is confused. Free speech and an absence of laws curtailing anyone’s right to spew hate toward another group or person does not indicate the absence of anti-Semitism or other forms of bigotry or racism. In the past, he has referred to the “Jewish-Russian mafia.” In speaking about Ukraine and World War II, he’s collectively called Jews, Nazis, and Soviets “scum.” Earlier this December, Svoboda party members boasted about breaking up a “Sabbath of perverts,” which was a peaceful human rights demonstration organized by Ukraine’s much persecuted and misunderstood LGBTQ community.
The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, now has 37 Svoboda members. Despite its small size it has already become a vocal and formidable opponent to the totalitarian regime of President Viktor Yanukovych and his Russian-leaning Party of Regions. Although Svoboda has achieved leverage by forming a coalition with the parties of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (Batkivschyna) and world champion boxer Vitali Klitschko (Ukrainian Democratic Alliance), it is a force in its own right.
Overall, this is a good alliance, so long as Tymoshenko and Klitschko collaboratively and forcefully criticize irresponsible comments by Svoboda leaders and work to address its radical, unacceptable excesses like hate speech. The alliance gives these two leaders the right to keep Svoboda in check and to change it. There are valid concerns about the rise of Svoboda. They should not be dismissed by anyone, especially Ukrainians in the Diaspora.
Svoboda has identified itself as “pro-Ukrainian” seeking to safeguard Ukrainian culture and language. Yanukovych has opening mocked and referred to Ukrainian as “gibberish” and speaks it so poorly he relies exclusively on Russian. His Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, born in Russia of Estonian and Russian parents, has shown equal disdain for the language spoken primarily in central and western Ukraine by two-thirds of the population.
ADL and other groups in the West have important work to nurture and educate Svoboda’s leadership. In addition, Tymoshenko and Klitschko must always be reminded of their moral and ethical responsibilities when working with Svoboda. Nor should religious leaders in Ukraine and the Diaspora ever forget their heavy duties to speak out against Svoboda when its actions or comments are contrary to truth, justice, and Christian values. Silence by church leaders in speaking out against anti-Semitism is always a sin. Their silence is never acceptable and will be judged accordingly by God.
Changing Svoboda won’t be easy and will require patience, persistence, and a comprehensive, well-thought out approach. If handled correctly, Ukrainian society will be a more self-understanding and accepting nation of its rich, diverse Jewish heritage underscoring it should be embraced and celebrated, not hated, feared, or attacked.
Paul Jesep is a priest, attorney, policy analyst, and author of Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically; Credit Card Usury and the Christian Failure to Stop It; and Crucifying Jesus and Secularizing America – the Republic of Faith without Wisdom.