Petliura had to lie when he claimed nationhood for Ukraine was widely supported by the Jewish community. He constantly tried to get Ukrainians to care as deeply for Jewish issues as he did. Jewish parties were willing to work with the Ukrainians, but they abstained from coming out for or against independence. Or, if they did have a firm stance on the matter, it was decidedly against independence.[i] Yet, throughout his time in power, Petilura would again and again make public statements in favour of Jews. Take for example, the following statement to what remained of his army in August of 1919,
It is time to know that the Jews have, like the greater part of our Ukrainian population, suffered from the horrors of the Bolshevist-communist invasion and now know where the truth lies. The best Jewish groups such as the Bund the Faraynigte [United Socialist Jewish Workers’ Party], the PoaleiTsion [Workers of Zion], and the Folkspartey [People’s Party] have come out decidedly in favor of an independent Ukrainian state and cooperate together with us. The time has come to realise that the peaceable Jewish population — their women and children — like ours have been imprisoned and deprived of their national liberty. They are not going anywhere but are remaining with us, as they have for centuries, sharing in both our happiness and our grief. The chivalrous troops who bring equality and liberty to all the nationalities of Ukraine must not listen to those invaders and provocateurs who hunger for human blood. Yet at the same time they cannot remain indifferent in the face of the tragic fate of the Jews. He who becomes an accomplice to such crimes is a traitor and an enemy of our country and must be placed beyond the pale of human society. … I expressly order you to drive away with your forces all who incite you to pogroms and to bring the perpetrators before the courts as enemies of the fatherland. Let the courts judge them for their acts and not excuse those found guilty from the most severe penalties of the law.[ii]
If Peltiura was guilty of anything, it was that he had almost no control over many of his generals, who essentially did as they pleased. He actually tried to set up Jewish militias in response to the growing number of accounts of pogroms. These militias would be tasked to defend Jewish communities from anyone, including those supposedly under Petliura’s command. However, they were never created because, interestingly enough, the Jewish parties were against any such units being created.[iii] He passed laws which were meant to stop pogroms: reformation of the army, extraordinary courts to deal with pogromists and funds to be used to assist victims of pogroms.[iv]
His reforms seem to have had some effect. Indeed, there are many cases of soldiers being found guilty of engaging in pogroms and were thus sentenced to death for their role.[v] But the damage to Petliura’s reputation was done. The international press had portrayed him as a murderous tyrant, and nothing Petliura could do would change that. No wonder, then, that even before Schwartzbard’s trial in the minds of many Petliura deserved a violent end.
Symon Petliura was completely misrepresented, but the press ran with the anti-Semitic canard and that was the end of the story. Although his support for Zionism meant that Petliura was defended by Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, still other prominent Jews, like Hannah Arendt, fully bought into the narrative formulated by their kinsmen. In preparation for this piece I read many Jewish online news media, magazines, etc., and they all went with the traditional Jewish narrative of Petliura the pogromist.
As should be clear by now Petliura was not an anti-Semite but was actually quite the opposite. In fact, he and his colleagues in both ruling regimes of the Ukrainian People’s Republic held views which were very much egalitarian. Or at least they were when they came to the Jews, the people whose trials and tribulations always seem to be of the utmost importance. . . .
In today’s Ukraine, Petliura’s legacy is being re-evaluated and a more positive view now exists. The government is now rehabilitating Petliura and other Ukrainian nationalists from the interwar era, including later figures who fought both the Soviets and Hitler’s Germany in World War II. Of course, this is seen as highly controversial in the Western states which are backing Ukraine in its current crisis with Russia . Given the history of Ukrainian-Jewish conflict and that Ukrainian nationalists today are more rightist than those of the 1918-20 period, it is interesting to see so many in the West have been pro-Ukraine including Jewish organizations (particularly neoconservatives for whom Russia is the main enemy).
The case of Petliura is one of much interest to me because I believe in it we can see parallels with what is going on now in the Occident of the twenty-first century. One of the points of interest is how Petliura and his associates did their best to promote Jewish interests and placate that community only for it to largely remain aloof to the issue of Ukrainian statehood. . . .