A bill calling for a day of remembrance for the Holodomor, the famine that killed millions in Ukraine in 1932-1933, which many scholars say was an intentional move by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, sparked controversy on Tuesday.
Historians warned it will encourage antisemitic conspiracy theories, and the Russian Embassy also voiced opposition.
Kulanu MK Akram Hasson proposed the bill, which states: “The Knesset declares December 6 as the Remembrance Day for the Ukrainian Genocide (‘the Holodomor’).” The prime minister and education minister may hold public ceremonies and educational activities, respectively, on that day.
Hasson said he was inspired to legislation the bill after a recent visit to Ukraine, emphasizing that it is a way to express that human life and dignity are primary values.
“I was surprised, because I didn’t know how bad the famine was. It killed many Jews and other people as well. It was an intentional famine, and we should recognize it, because we are a country established after a genocide,” he said.
While there is no doubt that millions of Ukrainians were among the citizens of the Soviet Union who died of starvation in the 1930s, nearly every other detail of the Holodomor, which means “death by starvation,” is disputed. Ukrainian nationalists say Stalin intentionally targeted their people, and that as many as 20 million of them were killed. Many historians agree that Ukrainians were targeted, and put the number killed in the millions, but much lower.
Prof. John-Paul Himka, a Canadian-American historian who responded to an email from The Jerusalem Post Tuesday, said four million were killed.
The Holodomor has played a role in what’s known as the “double genocide” model, a growing trend by which some in Eastern European countries do not consider the Holocaust to be unique, but say Nazi and Soviet crimes were equal.
In some cases, this has played into conspiracy theories that communism was a Jewish plot, and countries have glorified Nazi collaborators because they were anti-Soviet, such as Ukrainian independence movement leader Stepan Bandera and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, who took part in the ethnic cleansing of Jews and Poles during World War II.
HIMKA CHALLENGES the Ukrainian nationalist idea of the Holodomor, saying he does not use the term "genocide," which is politically loaded, but adds that “the evidence points to deliberate measures to punish [the Ukrainian] population” and “there’s no doubt that there was a state food crime here and that it had a political angle.
“There is no question that Ukrainian nationalist and government figures in Ukraine have been guilty of employing the famine in an antisemitic way,” Himka said. “Nothing sophisticated here: [They claim] the Jews, notably [Stalin associate] Lazar Kaganovich, orchestrated the Holodomor, in some versions as punishment for the 1919 pogroms, in other versions in order to profit from it.”
Irena Cantorovich, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Kantor Database for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism, said that “Ukrainian nationalists use [the Holodomor] and claim that many Jews were in the Soviet leadership and therefore are responsible,” and Hasson’s bill will encourage them.
However, Cantorovich pointed out, “many Jews died of famine, too. It didn’t choose who to go to.”
“Ukrainians think it’s a kind of genocide... but I don’t think we need to compare it to our Holocaust,” she added. “It’s not the same, and Ukrainians weren’t specifically targeted the way Jews were murdered just because they’re Jews. It can’t be compared at all.”
Last week, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, Nazi-hunter and director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, lamented the spread of the “double genocide” idea.
“Since the Soviet Union crumbled, people have been trying to say communism is the same as Nazism... They want communism to be considered genocide and [some countries] criminalized denying it. And then, if communism is genocide, and there were Jewish communists, then Jews committed genocide. This is their way of undermining the Shoah and their participation in it,” Zuroff explained.
The issue exists “in practically every country in post-communist Eastern Europe,” he said. “Their new heroes are people who fought communists, some of whom killed Jews in the Shoah. They name streets and schools after them.”
HASSON SAID he did not intend to liken the Holodomor to the Holocaust, and mentioned that he visited Dachau in 1982 and later led a Druse delegation to Auschwitz.
“The Holocaust of the Jewish people was the worst in the history of mankind, a systematic plan to exterminate the Jewish people,” he said. “If there are people who don’t accept that, it’s their problem, not mine.”
The Russian Embassy in Israel came out against the bill, saying that “Kiev’s representation of that tragedy as ‘the genocide of Ukrainians’ is politically charged, contradicts historical facts and is not aimed at restoring justice. In our opinion, this representation only aims at sowing discord between the people of Russia and Ukraine.”
The embassy’s statement points out that in the early 1930s, famine struck Russians, Ukrainians, Kazakhs and other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, calling it “the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the country,” and says the UN General Assembly and UNESCO, as well as the lower house of the Russian parliament, adopted resolutions in memory of the victims of the famine.
“Therefore, the representation of these events as a deliberate policy to destroy the Ukrainian nation contradicts historical facts and is a cynical speculation on the memory of the millions of victims for political reasons,” the statement reads. “It is also regrettable that our colleagues from the Knesset (in particular MK Hasson) have recently prepared a bill on the Ukrainian Holodomor that distorts history. We urge all relevant Israeli officials, including MK Hasson to study historical facts more accurately.”
Russia and Ukraine have been in conflict since 2014; Russia annexed Crimea and has conducted military incursions into Ukraine, and pro-Russian separatist troops are engaged in an ongoing war against Ukraine in its Donbass region.
Hasson said he will not be deterred by Russian opposition.
“Even if it’s difficult or unpopular, we need to go on the straight path, because we demand that others recognize the Holocaust of the Jewish people,” Hasson said. “We don’t need permission from anyone else.
“This bill isn’t against anyone; it’s remembering something that happened,” the MK added.
There are currently bills on the Knesset’s table to recognize the genocide of the Yazidis, a Middle Eastern minority ethnically cleansed by Islamic State, and the Armenian Genocide by Turkey in World War I. The Knesset Education, Culture and Sport Committee recognized the Armenian Genocide in 2016, but the government has yet to do so.