I am attending the Association for the Study of Nationalities Convention (April 15-17) at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.  This is my first post about the convention.

My schedule allowed me to attend just one panel from the opening day of the ASN Convention, “Ukrainians and Jews: National Revivalism and National Narratives.”  As a writer working on a book about World War II in the region that is now Western Ukraine, I have a lot of interest in the subject of Ukrainian-Jewish relations.  The two groups have shared a contentious history, largely because their interests as minorities under different powers (Poland, Russia, the Soviet Union) often came into conflict.  There are still painful debates about the extent to which Jews contributed to Ukrainian suffering under the Soviets, and to what extent Ukrainians collaborated in the Nazi extermination of Jews.  (Since I am journalist by training and not a historian, I will leave the debate to academics at least for this post.)

The three panelists who spoke on this issue today presented a more complicated and hopeful take than one usually encounters.  While the discussion of Ukrainian-Jewish relations often emphasizes the ways one group has wronged the other, the scholars argued that Ukrainians and Jews have often coexisted to each other’s benefit.

  • Myroslav Shkandrij, a professor at the University of Manitoba, spoke about depictions of Jews in Ukrainian literature.  In the early and mid- 19th Century, these depictions were limited to stereotypical portrayals of Jews as the leaseholder who would do things like lock the Ukrainians’ church until they paid him.  Shkandrij noted that Ukrainian poet and nation hero Taras Shevchenko, who wrote around this time, had a more nuanced view of nationalities.  By the 1880s, Shkandrij said, the stereotypes began to break down.  Ukrainian writers presented Jews as a group, like Ukrainians, struggling to achieve national unity.  Ultimately, Ukrainian depictions of Jews became largely sympathetic, including characters who converted to Christianity for the love a Ukrainian character.  In contrast to this, Shkandrij said, Russian writers depicted Jewish characters who converted as untrustworthy.  The level of intimacy between Ukrainians and Jews in Ukrainian literature is not present in Russian literature, he said.
  • Yohanan Petrovskyj-Shtern, who teaches at Northwestern University, delivered a fascinating lecture on the ways Ukrainian and Jewish dissidents imprisoned in Gulag camps during the Brezhnev era shaped one another’s politics.  Petrovskyj-Shtern said the memoirs of Jewish dissidents published after the dissidents’ prison terms included a Jewish nationalist perspective that was not a part of their pre-Gulag activism.  The Jewish dissidents, he said, learned from their Ukrainian fellow prisoners to see themselves as people of a nation, not as Soviet citizens.  In turn, the Ukrainian dissidents took on a more democratic view of nationalism after their encounters with Jewish prisoners, and some of them abandoned anti-Semitic views, Petrovskyj-Shtern said.  Petrovskyj-Shtern closed by noting the irony that Ukrainian and Jewish dissidents had to be thrown together in the Gulag in order to exchange ideas.
  • Henry Abramson of Touro College South drew on his personal history to explore the ways Ukrainian and Jewish narratives have moved closer to becoming what he referred to as “normalized.”  Abrmanson, who is Jewish, is married to a Ukrainian woman.  He described in a very humorous way how his father-in-law to be was a bit skeptical of him at first.  Similarly, many Jews were puzzled when he told them he planned to study the history of Jews in Ukraine.  “The Ukrainians were the worst [during the Holocaust],” they said to him.  Abramson said he doesn’t hear that comment anymore except occasionally from elderly Jews.  He praised the work of Rutgers University Professor Taras Hunczak, who was the chair of the panel, as an early effort to begin a discourse between Ukrainian and Jewish historical narratives.  Hunczak published an influential essay refuting the long-held premise that post-WWI Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petliura was an anti-Semite who encouraged pogroms against Jews.  Abramson did add that certain issues, particularly the Holodomor and the Holocaust, will take more time and research for the discussion to move beyond their current acrimony.

It was an enlightening panel.  I am not certain that I share the panelists’, particularly Abramnson’s, optimism about the extent to which there is normalization of national narratives between Ukrainians and Jews.  While that may be the case among academics, I often see references in the media to Petliura’s antisemitism, for example, even though Hunczak’s research helped dispel the idea that Petliura encouraged pogroms.

Near the end of the session Hunczak said that historians and academics have to base their assertions on documented evidence.  To take the recent discussion of Stepan Bandera, the WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist leader, as one example, there was virtually zero citation of evidence by those who charged him with antisemitism and ethnic cleansing of Poles.  I hope that the thoughtfulness and methodology of these panelists is applied to controversial discussions like the one about Bandera’s legacy.

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