‘Ukraine has a better understanding of Israel than any other country’

Ukraine is the most pro-Israel country in Europe, and has a better understanding of Israel than the government of any other country, “because we are both fighting a war against terror.” So says Yevgen Korniychuk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel.

At the same time, he admits that the war in Gaza has upstaged the war in Ukraine and that he has to work much harder to keep his own country’s war in global focus.

On the day of our interview, he met with US Ambassador Jack Lew, and he regularly meets with other ambassadors to update them on Russia’s assaults on Ukraine. In addition, he makes great use of social media platforms to spell out Ukraine’s message.

Our meeting takes place in the Ukraine Cultural Center in North Tel Aviv, a few doors away from the Ukraine Embassy, with Chabad of North Tel Aviv located between the two.

Chabad is extremely active in Ukraine and, in the early months of the war, captured international headlines for the courage and dedication of its emissaries in Jewish communities throughout the country.

Ukrainian Ambassador to Israel Yevgen Korniychuk. (credit: Lahav Harkov)

The second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is two months away, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been reported as saying that he has no intention of calling a halt despite the thousands of casualties on both sides.

The large glass showcases surrounding the cultural center are dedicated to iconic academic, cultural, and sports buildings in different Ukrainian cities, the first of which were damaged or destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War, then by the Communists, and more recently by the Russians.

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The ground floor is an art gallery with an extensive Judaica exhibition by Russian-born artist Herman Gold, who was born in 1933, moved to Kyiv in Ukraine in 1964, where he lived for more than half a century before emigrating to Israel in 2022. Despite the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union, Gold, who trained in both Moscow and Ukraine and is regarded as a Ukrainian artist, began creating a Jewish series of paintings in the 1950s. The series includes burnt-out shtetls, Hanukkah candles, and rabbinic figures swathed in prayer shawls, and often clutching Torah scrolls.

In his resistance against the Soviet regime, Gold’s wedding in 1971 took place under a traditional Jewish bridal canopy, when few Jews dared to get married this way, and the marriage contract – the Ketubah – which is also part of Jewish tradition, was drawn up on the sheet of a school notebook which Gold cherishes to this day as proof of his resistance to the regime.

Gold was the premier portrait painter in Ukraine, and was commissioned to paint the portraits of all the presidents of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union. The exhibition, which includes portraits of famous Jews who were born or lived in Ukraine includes Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Shai Agnon, and Golda Meir.

It was supposed to open on October 8, but the opening was canceled due to the Hamas massacre in southern Israel on October 7.

There is a Golda Meir Street in Ukraine, says the ambassador. When asked whether there are other streets named for Ukrainian Jews of note, he says he doesn’t know, but is sure that Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, who is of Jewish background, would be amenable to the idea of naming more streets after famous Ukrainian Jews.

Antisemitism in Ukraine?

Asked about antisemitism in Ukraine today, Korniychuk links his index finger to his thumb to indicate zero.

After all, other than Israel, Ukraine is the only country in the world that simultaneously had a Jewish president and a Jewish prime minister. Volodymyr Groysman served as prime minister from 2016 to August 2019. For the latter part of that period, Volodymyr Zelensky was already president, having come into office in May 2019, and it was common knowledge that both Volodymyrs were of Jewish parentage

Zelensky had been scheduled to come to Israel in October, continuing from his trip to Romania, but realized there was no point in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas massacre, because his visit would have lost impetus. But he still thinks that Israel could do more to help Ukraine. More Israeli aid is very important, says the ambassador.

When it is pointed out to Korniychuk that Israel does not have spare military equipment under the current circumstances, he retorts that over the past twelve months, Israel produced far more military equipment than anticipated.

Israel is among the countries that provided a haven for Ukrainians fleeing the war in their own country, as well as Ukrainians living in Gaza. Several of the Ukrainians living in Gaza have twice been evacuated to Israel, during the past two-and-a-half years – first in 2021, during Operation Guardian of the Walls, coming in via Egypt on Ukrainian passports, and more recently during the Israel-Hamas war. Some have relatives and friends in Israel.

Both in Gaza and in the disputed territories, there are some Ukrainian citizens married to Palestinians who came to study at Ukrainian universities and returned with them to the Middle East. During the conflict, many have wanted to go home, while others think Israel is safer than Gaza.

How many Ukrainians live in Israel? As registration is not compulsory, Korniychuk cannot give an exact figure. Although 15,000 are registered, he estimates that there are approximately half a million Russian-speaking Ukrainians who have made their homes in Israel, plus a large number of Israelis who are entitled to Ukrainian passports.

Of the Ukrainians in Israel, 2,500 including dual nationals, left during the first two weeks of the war. During the first two weeks of the war in Ukraine, some 1,400 people lost their lives, says Korniychuk, underscoring that this is approximately equal to the number of people killed by Hamas during the massacre.

Korniychuk notes that Israel was essentially founded by Ukrainian Jews, who though they came to reestablish a Jewish homeland, nonetheless carried Ukraine in their hearts.

Of the Ukrainians living in Israel, many have joined the army. Korniychuk encountered some of them during a visit to the frontlines and chatted with them in Russian.

The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians resident in Israel will remain here, he estimates, even though the economy is on a downward spiral. Salaries in Israel are generally better than those in Ukraine.

Even though the economy in Israel has slowed down, the ambassador comments, there are still job opportunities for Ukrainians, because so many of the foreign workers have left and will not be replaced for the foreseeable future. Moreover, it is unlikely that Israel will allow workers from Gaza to enter the country.

Such a situation creates more job opportunities among the resident population for qualified people. For instance, Ukrainian medical staff were given the opportunity to attain Israeli qualifications, and after passing the required tests are now working in clinics and hospitals.

Other Ukrainian immigrants are trained and experienced in a variety of professions. Korniychuk is confident that those who are not can learn, especially in service professions in which Palestinians were previously employed.

Inasmuch as the hostage situation and the war in Gaza continue to occupy the attention of the international media, Korniychuk sees this waning soon in the same way that interest in the war in Ukraine has waned.

The longer that the war goes on, he says, the greater the need to keep up awareness.