January 18, 2020

How Ignorant Can They Be?

Steven Castor Photo by Pool/Getty Images

When Republican impeachment lawyer Steven Castor and Republican representatives implied Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman might have dual loyalty to the Ukraine, many Jews cringed. After all, the accusation of dual loyalty has a long and dishonored place in Jewish history.

Jewish historians cringed for a very different reason. Imagining the American son of Jews who fled the Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union might be loyal to Ukraine was a statement of ignorance and incongruent with the historical experience of Soviet Jews.

In the center of Kyiv, there is a monument to Ukrainian hero Bohdan Khmelnytsky, leader of the Cossack and peasant uprising against Polish rule in the Ukraine. For Jews, the 1648 Khmelnytsky revolt — known as “gezerot tach v’tat” in Jewish history — resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands, perhaps more than 100,000 Jews and the destruction of numerous Jewish communities. The reverberation of that revolt was felt in Jewish history with the rise of the Sabbatean messianic movement a decade and half later, and even of Chasidism, which spiritualized the messianic yearning and Zionism that secularized that same yearning. Ukrainian nationalist hero Khmelnytsky was the most effective pre-Hitler killer of Jews since the Crusades.

During Vindman’s father’s lifetime, Ukraine was the site of German massacres of Jews. In Babi Yar, the killing field just outside the town, Germans killed more than 33,000 Jews in two days, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 1941. Ukrainian neighbors looked on, and many went on to take possession of Jewish property, homes and apartments, furnishings and clothing. They slept in Jewish beds; they ate off Jewish dishes.

Ukrainian nationalists who thought cooperating with the Nazi German state would result in an independent Ukraine no longer under Soviet domination, staffed the death camps of Treblinka and Belzec, among others, where 1.4 million Jews died. At Belzec, 500,000 were gassed within 10 months by a staff of 104, of whom 14 were Germans and 90 Ukrainian. At Treblinka, some 925,000 were killed by a staff of 120, of whom 90 were Ukrainian and 30 German. The decimation of Jews in the Ukraine was overwhelming; many were killed by Ukrainians, not by Germans. Even the roundups of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were conducted by Ukrainians, providing the bulk of the personnel required for collaboration with the Germans.

In accusing Vindman of loyalty to the Ukraine, his accusers broadcast their ignorance.

Post-Holocaust, these Jews posthumously were denied the Jewish identity for which they were killed and were referred to (if at all) as “Soviet citizens” who died in the fight against fascism.

In the immediate post-World War II years, Stalin was guilty of crimes against the Jews: the Night of the Murder of the Yiddish Poets, the Doctors’ Plot, and the pervasive fear of — if not altogether planned — deportation of Soviet Jews. Stalin’s actions didn’t engender Jews’ loyalty to the country, aside from the enthusiastic Communists whose Jewish identity was marginal at best.

Jews who applied to leave the Soviet Union before the glasnost era weren’t permitted to leave. They often were fired from their jobs, assigned to menial labor, their children were deprived of educational opportunities and their families harassed. Some Jews were sent into internal exile. Many Jewish activists from abroad met with these refuseniks. We are impressed by their bravery. They were willing to speak out for themselves, for their fellow Jews and for human rights in the Soviet Union.

Richard Slotkin, a preeminent historian of immigration, described immigrants as “gamblers.” They left their homes and gave up their language, their culture and all things familiar in the gamble that their children would have better lives. Jews who came to the United States came for freedom and opportunity — values they cherished and couldn’t find in the land of their birth.

When Vindman addressed his father in his opening statement to the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 19, he essentially assured him the gamble had paid off — that he and his brothers understood his father’s sacrifice, his father’s values and were grateful to be Americans. These are the statements of an American patriot, the statements of central and enduring values of American national life.

In accusing Vindman of loyalty to the Ukraine, his accusers broadcast their ignorance. They do not know what they are speaking about.

But we Jews know.


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.