Congressmen’s letter on Ukraine anti-Semitism may be Russian conspiracy, Jewish leader suggests

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — A leader of Ukrainian Jews suggested that recent criticism of his country  by 57 U.S. congressmen was part of an orchestrated campaign, possibly paid for by Russia.

Josef Zissels, chairman of the Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, was quoted as saying this by the state-run National News Agency of Ukraine, or Ukrinform.

His statement made last week triggered angry reactions by other Jewish community leaders in the region, where international cooperation between Jewish groups is suffering as a result of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine and tension with other countries that Moscow used to dominate.

The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, or EAJC, which is the World Jewish Congress’ affiliate in Russian-speaking countries, declared that it would kick Vaad out of its list of member groups following Zissels’ remark.

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“It is quite obvious who needs to discredit Ukraine in the United States, and why,” Zissels said in what a EAJC official said was a thinly-veiled reference to Russia. “I know of several [lobbying] firms that are accredited at Congress, and can promote anything for money there. So to collect the necessary number of signatures for them is not a problem,” he said.

Zissels was referring to a letter sent last week carrying the signatures of 57 U.S. congressmen to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. In it, they condemned what they called Ukrainian legislation that “glorifies Nazi collaborators.” The letter, the harshest public rebuke in years of Ukraine’s anti-Semitism by U.S. elected officials, also says that the world is seeing a “rise of this hateful ideology” in reference to neo-Nazism.

Zissels dismissed it as contrived, saying some congressmen who signed the letter may have not ever read it. “Most of them can’t even find Ukraine on the map,” he said.

In Ukraine, the proliferation of hostility to Russia over its annexation of Ukrainian land in 2014 has given rise to laws and state-sponsored gestures venerating allies of Nazi Germany — including some who killed Jews during the Holocaust — because they fought against Russia. In Lviv last week, hundreds of people marched, many carrying Nazi symbols, in celebration of a Waffen SS unit with many local volunteers.

Against this backdrop, “Mr. Zissels’ unfounded allegations, which are only the latest in a series of inappropriate statements of a member delegate of the EAJC, are intolerable,” a spokesperson for the group said. He added that delegates from several countries of the 23 represented at EAJC had complained about Zissels’ support for nationalists in Ukraine amid reports of rising anti-Semitism there. Zissels has disputed these reports.

Vyacheslav Likhachev, head of Ukraine’s National Minority Rights Monitoring Group and an expert on anti-Semitism who is affiliated with Zissels’ Vaad group, noted Zissels never asserted that the congressmen’s letter was “ordered by a lobby group,” but merely said that “it is possible.” Zissels’ reaction to the letter was “defense against anti-Ukrainian defamation,” Likhachev added.

Zissels said his organization had resolved to leave EAJC under Mikhael Mirilashvili some months ago over its “breaking of geopolitical neutrality,” as Zissels called it.

A spokesperson for the EAJC said the group’s commitment to political neutrality is at the heart of the decision to disassociate from Vaad, “which seems to have been hijacked to serve Mr. Zissels’ nationalist agenda.”