Ukrainian Jewish Leader on Russian Aggression

Josef Zissels is the chairman of the General Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. He is sitting in the middle of a long table in the Ukrainian Restaurant in downtown New York. Before him is a bowl of borscht. As he eats, he shares his views of the current crisis in Ukraine with nine specialists and activists.

Zissels does not mince words. “There is no civil war in Ukraine,” he says. “There is a Russian aggression supported by local collaborators.” The war with Russia will be “long,” and Ukraine needs to construct a “militarist economy” like Israel’s. The Maidan Revolution had nothing to do with ethnicity, language, or religion. It was a “civilizational conflict” between those Ukrainians who supported Europe and those who supported Russia.

Zissels is 69-year-old former dissident with prison sentences to prove it. Born in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, he’s a staunch Ukrainian patriot who speaks perfect Ukrainian. In 1947, his family moved to Chernivtsi, in then-Soviet Ukraine, where he studied at the university. His dissident activity in both the Jewish and democratic movements began in the 1970s; in 1978, he joined the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. That same year, he received his first three-year prison sentence. In 1984, he got three more years. In 1989, as Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was taking off, he became co-chairman of the VAAD—the Confederation of Jewish Organizations and Communities. Two years later, in 1991, Zissels became chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine and executive vice president of the Congress of National Communities of Ukraine and the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine.

As a Jewish Ukrainian democrat, Zissels took part in and supported both the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2013–14 Maidan Revolution. On December 15, 2013, he delivered a stirring speech to the protesters on Kyiv’s Independence Square:

In 2004 I stood here, at this very Independence Square, this very Maidan, at the stage which had been built here, and thought of how happy my fate is. … Today the situation in Ukraine is very similar to 2004, for once more the same propaganda is being used against Euromaidan, against the united opposition, against all of us. They are trying to sow the seeds of conflict, to pit us one against the other, and to create an artificial standoff—national minorities against Ukrainians. But Ukraine and its people have changed in these years, in this short time. … When we go out to the Maidan desiring freedom, we have one joint goal: a united dignified future. … We need a new government…. Until we have such a government, we have only one peaceful weapon: these Maidans, which can grow into an all-national Maidan, into a perpetual campaign of civil dissent. Three thousand years ago my people took 40 years to walk from slavery to freedom. We, the people of Ukraine, have already gone halfway. There is not much longer to go!

Zissels ended his peroration with two explosive lines—the first from Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko: “If you fight, you shall win!”—and the second from the Ukrainian nationalist movement: “Glory to Ukraine!”

Zissels identifies himself completely with his homeland, Ukraine, which he sees as slowly overcoming centuries of Russian servitude and becoming a liberal, democratic country. His is the language of the 20th century’s Ukrainian national liberation movements. Who, he asks, will “expel the Russian disease from our land?” Right-wing Ukrainians have, he says, mostly abandoned their Judeophobia and homophobia. They’ve still retained their Russophobia, but that’s “largely justified.”

Asked about the controversial Azov volunteer regiment, whose leader is a neo-Nazi, Zissels brushes off the implication that the entire unit shares his extremist views. Perhaps 30 or 40 do, he says, but the important thing is that all the volunteers, including the Jews fighting in Azov, are on the front lines. Their ideological predilections don’t matter, he emphasizes, as they’re all united in defending their country against Russia.

In a July 6, 2014, interview in Toronto, Zissels openly associated himself with the controversial term zhydobandera, which the Ukrainian Jewish oligarch Igor Kolomoisky popularized by wearing on a T-shirt. (The term is a conjunction of zhyd, a word that can mean both “Jew” and “kike,” and the surname of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist, that according to Soviet and Russian propaganda was a synonym for fascist. Hence, zhydobandera is the equivalent of both “Jew-Ukrainian nationalist” and “kike-fascist.”) According to Zissels, “Back in 1978 when they were imprisoning me, the KGB couldn’t understand me: ‘as a Jew he should be a Zionist.’ They had these stereotypes, but I became part of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, a Ukrainian national group, and therefore back then I was already a zhydobandera.”

Zissels is in the United States, meeting with Jewish, Ukrainian, and US government circles in order to lobby for his country. Putin, he notes, will stop at nothing, and will be willing to sacrifice untold numbers of his own people in order to crush Ukraine, which “opened a Pandora’s box that will be hard to close.” Ukraine, he stresses several times, needs weapons in order to defend itself against the Russian aggression. “This disease,” he says, “must be stopped.” 

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