At diplomatic seder, Ukraine takes spotlight

Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, speaks with Andrew Marks, a member of the Executive Council and Board of Governors for AJC Washington. | Photo courtesy of AJC

Dmitriy Shapiro | JNS

Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States was recognized last week as the American Jewish Committee brought back its annual tradition of hosting a diplomatic seder in Washington.

The event featured a dinner, modeled as a mock Passover seder, which allowed the representatives of nearly 50 countries in attendance an opportunity to connect and talk about the histories of their nations and their relationship to the Jewish community.

Rabbi Aaron Alexander, co-senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, explained that the Passover story of degradation to emancipation plays itself out over and over around the world and in different cultures.

The guests included ambassadors, embassy and consulate staff; U.S. government officials; and AJC staff and volunteers. This year marked the first time the event was held since 2019.

Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova said the Passover story parallels Ukraine’s experience — not only over the experience of the last 90 days since Russia invaded but throughout its history.

“The story of a hard road and fight for freedom during 40 years, for us, has been the same hard road for 400 years,” she said.

Markarova added that the story of Jews and Ukrainians has not been known, as Ukraine has been viewed through the eyes of Russian propaganda, but that the Jewish community in the United States has always known the truth.

“We are the same family. I don’t know any other place like Ukraine where for centuries we lived together,” she said. “We lived through good times and through really bad times. We lived through so many tragedies in the previous century. And so many times before, we’ve said together ‘Never Again.’ And we’ve fought and worked hard — so, so hard, for never again to really be never again.”

But she said that changed for Ukraine eight years ago when Russia annexed Crimea and supported the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as 90 days ago, when it began a “full-fledged war” in Ukraine, causing 6.5 million mostly women and children to flee the country, 8 million to relocate inside of Ukraine, and an additional more than 10 million people to live under constant shelling or Russian occupation.

“Unfortunately, the whole world saw what it means to live under Russian occupation,” she said.

“It’s even difficult to explain how human beings can do something like that to each other. But we’ve seen it before. We’ve seen in during World War II,” she said. “Unfortunately, not a lot, not everything, not enough has been done after the previous victory to stop this hatred and to stop the ideas that lead to them.”

This, she continued, is why it was so important to fight antisemitism. She outlined steps the Ukrainian government had taken before the war to combat antisemitism, including adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism last year, implementing it into legislation and introducing it into the country’s criminal code.

She said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made fighting antisemitism a priority and that the Ukrainian people are learning lessons from their history, which was not always good, and making sure not to repeat mistakes.

She also talked about the destruction of cities, schools and hospitals in Ukraine, and the enormous loss of life. Despite this, she said, Ukraine will not surrender; that they will win.
Markarova said key ingredients in their fight against Russia have been the bravery of the Ukrainian people, the leadership of their president and the generosity of its allies, especially the United States — its people and government officials.

“I could make a whole speech talking about everyone who has been day and night working with us and working with other friends and allies to put this anti-war coalition together and help us with weapons, with support, with sanctions against Russia,” said Markarova. “Now, of course, we need more. And when you hear me speak in public, this is the big part of every speech. And we always say that we appreciate it, but we need more because we’re dealing with such a powerful enemy. But we need to win, and we know that America is with us.”

Alan Ronkin, regional director of AJC Washington, D.C., whose office organized the dinner, recalled what he said at the last dinner shortly after the mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the mass shooting inside the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh, saying that it was not a time for business as usual.

“Little did any of us know how true those words were,” he said.

Since that time, he said, the country and world have become more polarized, a war has erupted in Europe, and antisemitism has been on the rise in the United States and throughout the world.

“The stakes seem so much higher now,” he said. “This isn’t about platitudes about building a better world. This is literally about being able to tell our children and our grandchildren that we did not stand idly by as the world seemed to pull itself apart.”

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