The Ambassador of the State of Israel to Ukraine instinctively begins his interview with Business Ukraine magazine in fluent Russian, before effortlessly switching into English upon request. This minor detail of protocol serves as a reminder that Ambassador Belotsercovsky is part of the over one million strong Israeli population with roots in the former Soviet Union. By his estimate, almost half a million of today’s Israeli citizens were born in Ukraine. It is unusual, he says, to encounter anyone in Israel who does not have some kind of ancestral roots in Ukraine. These ties continue to bind modern Israel and Ukraine, helping to facilitate business links while reflecting Ukraine’s central role in the epic story of Judaism.
Almost every Israeli has ties to Ukraine
Ambassador Eli Belotsercovsky was born in Soviet Moldova. His family moved to Israel in the 1970s when he was nine years old. He has been with the Israeli diplomatic service for the past two decades, with postings including Singapore and India prior to his arrival in Ukraine in August 2014. Kyiv is his first ambassadorial role. It is a challenge he is clearly relishing. “It is a fascinating opportunity in light of the changes taking place in Ukraine and the country’s position at the centre of global attention,” he comments.
Unlike many of his European ambassadorial counterparts, Belotsercovsky does not have to explain the basics of Ukraine to unknowing colleagues at home. As well as hundreds of thousands of immigrants, the country has provided the Israeli state with many of its most celebrated personalities, enjoying perhaps its highest profile beyond the borders of the former USSR itself. The Ambassador sees huge potential in this intimate awareness. “Ukraine is very well known in Israel. This serves as an excellent basis for developing relations,” he says, observing that Tel Aviv is one of the most popular international destinations from all of Ukraine’s regional airports. “And the flights are always full. It’s not an easy task to get a ticket,” he adds.
Historic home of European Jewry
This regular traffic is a mix of family visitors, tourists and business travelers. Many Israeli tourists are drawn by Ukraine’s wealth of Jewish heritage sites, reflecting the country’s historic role as one of the key centers of European Jewish life prior to WWII. The annual pilgrimage of tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews to the tomb of Rebbe Nachman in the Ukrainian town of Uman has acquired iconic status in post-Soviet Ukraine, but this sacred spot is actually only one of many similarly important sites dotted across the country.
Ukraine’s rich Jewish heritage is not widely known to international audiences due to the common habit of referring to ‘Russian Jews’ and ‘Polish Jews’ when, in modern terms, the Jewish communities in question were actually located within Ukraine. Belotsercovsky sees huge potential for further development of heritage tourism in Ukraine. As well as pilgrimages to important Judaic sites, many Israeli tourists already visit Ukraine in order to explore the former hometowns of their ancestors. Lviv and Odesa are two particularly popular destinations steeped in Jewish folklore, while every single Ukrainian town has a treasure trove of Jewish stories to share.
The darker side of Ukraine’s historic relationship with the Jewish community has frequently been alluded to in the international headlines over the past two-and-a-half years of revolution and conflict, with Russia keen to portray post-Maidan Ukraine as a hotbed of anti-Semitic extremism. Belotsercovsky rejects these claims. “We do not see any more anti-Semitism here than elsewhere in the world. It is not a major concern,” he states. His dismissal of the Kremlin narrative mirrors similar comments from the leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish communities, who have been vocal in their support of Ukraine’s European choice.
Israel has largely avoided becoming entangled in the geopolitical confrontation over Ukraine, choosing not align itself with international sanctions against Russia. Instead, Belotsercovsky says the Israeli emphasis has been on proving humanitarian assistance and helping Ukraine to deal with social issues resulting from the trauma of the conflict. Israeli trainers conducted 15 seminars in 2015 offering guidance to over 300 Ukrainian psychologists, social workers, and priests. This seminar programme will continue in 2016, with additional plans to support the establishment of a rehabilitation centre in Kyiv.
Security concerns and investor appeal
Israel’s long experience of daily life amid the constant security threats created by a hostile neighbourhood have led many in Ukraine to hold the Israeli experience up as a model for what can be achieved while facing military challenges. However, Belotsercovsky is cautious about drawing direct parallels, pointing to the suddenness of the Ukrainian crisis compared to Israel’s extensive experience of heightened security concerns. “Israelis have always lived in a conflict environment. We have learned to maintain a high standard of living despite the challenges. The current situation in Ukraine came out of the blue, so it is difficult to implement Israeli approaches developed over many years.”
Nevertheless, the Israeli familiarity with challenging security situations does mean Israeli entrepreneurs and investors as far less likely to be discouraged by negative headlines relating to Ukraine. On the contrary, Belotsercovsky sees interest in the Ukrainian market growing and says the country’s transformation agenda is particularly appealing. “The fact Ukraine is moving towards Europe is very attractive to Israeli businesses,” he comments. “Israeli investors understand the potential.”
On the subject of Ukraine’s post-Maidan reforms, Belotsercovsky is a realist. He recognizes the continuing problems with corruption but prefers to take a long view of the progress made and the challenges remaining. “Ukraine is going through the most difficult period since independence,” he offers. “It is a long process requiring huge efforts. But the Ukrainian people have clearly chosen their path and are moving towards the gradual fulfillment of their aspirations to be a Western, democratic, modern country.”