Veteran peace and human rights advocate Larry Lerner came home from a mission to Ukraine on Aug. 25 with some optimistic news.
“We got the feeling that anti-Semitism had dropped considerably in Ukraine,” he said two days after his return.
Lerner, a resident of Warren, is chair of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ). He led a delegation of UCSJ leaders in assessing the condition of Ukraine’s estimated 300,000 Jews amid the country’s deepening crisis with Russia.
For eight days they met with government leaders and members of Jewish and non-Jewish non-governmental organizations as well as with Jews in Dnipropetrovsk, Chernovitz, Lviv, and Vyzhnytsia.
What has helped overcome decades if not centuries of anti-Jewish feelings, he said, is the presence of Jews in high places.
“The mayor of Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s largest city, and seven other Ukrainian mayors happen to be Jewish,” said Lerner. “They helped with the struggle against the Russian invasion, and Ukrainians are now looking at the Jews very differently.”
The UCSJ leaders met in Lviv with Josef Zissels, a Jew who spent six years in Soviet prisons for his human rights advocacy.
“He told me the Jewish hatred of the Ukrainians and the Ukrainian hatred of the Jews has declined tremendously, especially in the last year,” said Lerner, a former president of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations. “Reports I received from Jewish organizations were that in the last year there were only 13 reported cases of anti-Semitism — far less than we found in the United States among similar populations.”
Among those in a good relationship with the Jews are the Tatars, who are Muslim natives of embattled Crimea. Thousands fled the peninsula after it was annexed by Russia in March.
“The Tatars do not like the Russians at all but they are friendly to the Jews,” Lerner said, adding that Jews and non-Jews support Ukrainian efforts against the Russian-backed insurgency and Russia’s seizure of Crimea.
He said the Jews share their biggest problem with the rest of Ukraine.
“Right now the economy is heavily taxed by the expense of war. Their gasoline is heavily taxed. Vital funds that should have been allocated to rebuild highways and other parts of the infrastructure are being used to fund Ukrainian military resistance,” Lerner said.
As a result, the Jewish community is asking for outside assistance. Both the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee are active in the country, running Sunday schools, community events, and programs for the at-risk elderly and struggling families.
Lerner’s group met with Meylach Schochet, who runs a soup kitchen and synagogue services in Lviv.
Schochet, said Lerner, “wants to rebuild the famous Golden Rose Synagogue adjacent to his office and to demand justice for prisoners who are denied medical care.”
Lerner said his organization is seeking to file a lawsuit to protect Jewish historical sites. “We want to prevent commercial development on those sites, and a court of appeals has granted us injunctions against that happening,” he said. “We want to create memorials for those who were murdered.”
He was joined on his trip by Leonid Stonov, UCSJ international director; Joel Sandberg, a Miami activist in the movement to free Soviet Jewry; and Stephen Bronner, a professor of political science and director of global relations at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus.