“Rabinovich for President!”—Will Ukraine Have a Jewish President?

Jun 25, 2014 by

[This post was originally published on GeoCurrents in March 2014]


Although for many Ukrainians and Russians the heading of this post may sound as a beginning of an anti-Semitic joke, Ukraine could conceivably soon have a Jewish president. At least, it now has a Jewish candidate in the running: businessman and philanthropist Vadim Rabinovich submitted his candidacy for the May 25, 2014 Presidential Elections. Rabinovich is a self-nominated candidate, not representing any political party. He will compete against more than a dozen other candidates, including former governor of Kharkiv Oblast and former mayor of Kharkiv Mikhail Dobkin, representing Party of Regions; leader of the ultra-nationalist “Svoboda” Party Oleh Tiahnybok; Yulia Timoshenko, representing the Batkivschina (“Fatherland”) Party; Natalia Korolevska, ex-Minister of Social Policy of Ukraine and the leader of “Ukraine – Forward!” Party (formerly known as Ukrainian Social Democratic Party); former Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine Serhiy Tihipko (self- nominated, MP from Party of Regions); former Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine Yuriy Boyko (self-nominated, member of Party of Regions); the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine Petro Symonenko; Oleh Lyashko of the Radical Party, as well as several self-nominated independent candidates, such as former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister of Trade and Economic Development of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, economist and former MP Valeriy Konovalyuk, First Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine Renat Kuzmin, singer, songwriter, and physician Olga Bogomolets, and Dmytro Yarosh, the head of Right Sector, described by some major publications as a far right, radical ultranationalist, and even neo-fascist party. Another potential candidate and the favorite in earlier polls, former professional boxer and a leading figure in the Euromaidan protests Vitali Klitschko, withdrew from the presidential race in order to run for mayor of Kiev. After he left the race, Klitschko endorsed Petro Poroshenko, who is leading with over a third of the prospective votes, according to the latest opinion polls. Timoshenko polls at 12%, with the Party of Regions official candidate Mikhail Dobkin coming in a distant forth, polling at 5.3%, far behind another member of Party of Regions, Serhiy Tihipko, who polled at 10%.

In an interview with Vesti.ua news website and online radio service, cited in JWeekly magazine (March 28, 2014), Vadim Rabinovich said that “Ukraine should become a neutral nation, with a small professional army based on the Swiss model and a regional administration similar to the German federal system”. This new administration system would replace the current division of Ukraine into 26 regions. He also called for canceling value-added taxes, which he said “turned into a tool for power to feed itself”. Rabinovich argues that establishing transparency in government would encourage investments that would help Ukraine recover economically following months of political turmoil that worsened the already severe financial crisis.


In the same interview, Rabinovich portrays himself as a “unifying candidate” who can “debunk the myth that Ukraine is anti-Semitic, which is being spread throughout the world”, referencing the Kremlin-run propaganda that depicts the new Ukrainian government as anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi. (As an example of such propaganda, see the pre-referendum posters in Crimea depicting the choice as either Russia or a Nazi state). As the president of the Ukrainian Jewish Parliament and Vice President of the European Jewish Union, Rabinovich would be the ideal candidate to dispel that myth. Yet, as discussed in my earlier posts (see here and here), Ukraine has a long history of anti-Semitism, and combatting that perception may be harder than Rabinovich envisages. All in all, sixty-year old Rabinovich sounds rather idealistic: “I have no maniacal thirst for power, I just want to help the country”, he said in the interview.

Yet Rabinovich’s biography reveals him to be a more pragmatic and problematic character than his presidential campaign makes him appear. In the 1980s, he was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for black market ventures, although he ended up serving only seven years. Among Rabinovich’s early ventures were furniture imports and natural gas exports from Ukraine. Because of his questionable business affairs, Rabinovich was convicted in Ukraine for a variety of crimes and stripped of Ukrainian citizenship. He then left the country and obtained Israeli citizenship. The conviction was later overturned and his Ukrainian citizenship was restored. In 1996, Rabinovich was appointed chairman of Israeli-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce. He still has a dual citizenship and maintains homes in both Ukraine and Israel. Rabinovich maintains that he was jailed on “trumped-up charges”, but in 1995 the United States revoked his visa, reportedly due to his links with criminal arm dealers. The US still bars his entry as a result, which would create serious complications if he were to be elected president. More recently, Rabinovich was president of FC Arsenal Kyiv, a professional football club in Kiev; at the end of his six-year tenure, the club filed for bankruptcy under controversial circumstances.

Besides his dubious business dealings, Rabinovich has been actively involved in Jewish organizations and philanthropy. In 1997, he created the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, which he subsequently led. He dissolved that organization in April 1999 to create a new one called the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, which promptly elected him as leader. Rabinovich also donated most of the money used to restore the historic Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem, as well as a $3 million replica of the golden Temple menorah that now overlooks the Western Wall Plaza. The menorah weighs half a ton and contains 45 kilograms of 24-carat gold. Many Jewish leaders believe, not suprisingly, that he is trying to buy positive publicity to make up for the notoriety generated by his financial and political activities. Another unsavory controversy emerged when the square in the old city of Jerusalem on which Hurva Synagogue stands was named after Rabinovich: apparently the people behind this maneuver thought he was dead (the square was actually named “Vadim Rabinovich Z”L” (Z”L means “may his/ her memory be a blessing” in Hebrew, an equivalent of the English RIP). The Supreme Court of Israel, petitioned by Councilwoman Rachel Azaria, ultimately revoked the naming of the square after Rabinovich, as it is forbidden by law to name streets and public venues in Jerusalem after living people (it is further forbidden to name features of the old city of Jerusalem after people who died after 1500).

Rabinovich’s most recent venture is Jewish News One (JN1), an international news network that covers world news with a focus on Judaism-related events. Its slogan is “Informing Opinion, Expanding Horizons” and its mission is to report Jewish and Israeli current affairs without bias. JN1 is not affiliated with, and receives no funding from, the government of Israel or any other nation, government, or political party. Rabinovich co-owns the network with another Ukrainian billionaire, Igor Kolomoisky. Kolomoisky is president of the European Jewish Union, a Brussels-based umbrella body of Jewish communities and organizations in Europe, of which Rabinovich is the vice-president. Kolomoisky and Rabinovich have reportedly invested US$5 million in the channel. JN1 began broadcasting on 21 September 2011. The JN1 broadcast is a 24-hour rolling news television network divided into Jewish-interest and world news loops. There are no advertisements or commercial breaks in the broadcast, which is available online via a live stream at JN1.TV. The network is sometimes referred to as the “Jewish al Jazeera”. On 4 March 2013, the offices of JN1 were bombed; nobody was injured in the explosion, but it is believed to be a murder attempt on Rabinovich.  Rabinovich blamed the attack on the far-right “Svoboda” Party, but its leader, Oleh Tiahnybok, denied any involvement.

If elected, Vadim Rabinovich would be the only Jewish head of state besides Israeli President Shimon Peres. His chances, however, look slim.


Related Posts

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: