Jewish National Council
Jewish National Council (Ukrainian: Єврейська національна рада; Yiddish: Yidisher natsional rat). A Jewish representative body that existed in the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) and the Western Ukrainian National Republic (ZUNR) during the Ukrainian struggle for independence (1917–20).
The Jewish National Council in the UNR was established in Kyiv in September 1917 as a advisory body affiliated with the vice-secretary for Jewish affairs at the General Secretariat of the Central Rada. Initially, the council consisted of 25 members, five from each political party that had seats in the Central Rada (the Bund, United Jewish Socialist Workers’ Party, Jewish People’s Party, Poale Zion, and the Zionists); later the representation of these parties was doubled. In October 1917 the Zionists boycotted the council and left its first session due to disagreement about the number of seats. The Zionists had significantly larger support than the Socialists among the Jewish population and insisted on a proportional principle of representation in the council instead of the principle of parity. Later, the Zionists only occasionally sent a representative to the council.
Initially, the Jewish National Council did not function as a politically active and representative body of Ukrainian Jewry, but after the elections to the Jewish communal councils in 1918, where the Zionists got the lion’s share of the seats, the balance of power shifted from the Ministry for Jewish Affairs to the council. The council gradually took over the functions of the highest provisional representative body of the Jewish people and preserved this role right down to the end, when the Jewish Ministry was liquidated by the Hetman government. Its influence increased during the Bolshevik occupation of Kyiv in January and February 1918 when the ministry as a part of the Ukrainian government did not function. Under such conditions, the council became practically the only representative of the Jewish population of Ukraine. The new de-facto status of the council was formally recognized at the tenth session of the Little Rada of the UNR in April 1918. The Little Rada announced that the new minister for Jewish affairs is ‘responsible to the Jewish National Council and in his activities he must strictly observe the program approved by this Council.’
On 22 January 1918 the Central Rada, trying to build a political alliance with non-Russian minorities, adopted the Law on National Personal Autonomy. The subsequent elections to the Jewish Constituent Assembly were a step towards strengthening the new legal foundation of Jewish life in Ukraine. Because of the difficult political situation, the gathering of a Jewish pre-parliament—the Provisional National Assembly—elected by members of local communities, was an alternative scenario. The council was responsible for the convocation of the pre-parliament and organization of the elections to the Jewish Constituent Assembly in August 1918. After the Hetman government had abolished Jewish national personal autonomy, the Jewish National Council was dispersed by force during its session on 16 July 1918. To continue work under new circumstances, on 4 July, the council elected the Main Election Bureau, consisting of eight members, four from each of the two camps (Socialists and Zionists), which had to organize a convention of Jewish communities in Ukraine (the National Assembly).
In Western Ukraine, at the end of October 1918, a member of the Austrian parliament Henryk Reizes (1878–1931), a native of Lviv, following the imperial manifesto about the self-rule of the empire’s nationalities, reorganized the executive committee of the Jewish National Party of Galicia into the Jewish National Council in order to ‘preserve the rights and defend the interests of the Jewish population of Eastern Galicia.’ However, one party could not represent the entire local Jewish community, and on 20 November 1918, an inter-party Provisional Jewish National Council was organized in Lviv. It included representatives from the Zionists, Jewish Social Democrats, Orthodox Zionist movement ‘Mizrahi,’ and Poale Zion. In November and December 1918 local Jewish councils were established in Boryslav, Buchach, Husiatyn, Drohobych, Zhydachiv, Kalush, Kolomyia, Stanyslaviv, Stryi, Ternopil, Chortkiv, and other towns. Trying to avoid any participation in the Ukrainian-Polish War in Galicia, 1918–19, the Jewish Council in Lviv declared neutrality. The councils or council members in other cities and towns in Galicia adopted the same strategy. On 18–20 December 1918, representatives of twenty-two Jewish councils from the territory under Ukrainian control held a congress in Stanyslaviv, the temporary capital of the Western Ukrainian National Republic (ZUNR). They formed a regional Jewish Council, headed by Karl Halpern. The Lviv regional Jewish Council ceased its activity. The Ukrainian authorities recognized the Jewish National Council with its headquarters in Stanyslaviv as a de facto representative organ of the Jewish community in the ZUNR. Ruben Fahn was appointed a secretary of the council. The sympathies of the council’s members split between Poland and Ukraine; among those who supported the pro-Ukrainian policy was Israel Waldman, who in 1922 was appointed by Yevhen Petrushevych as the commissioner for Jewish affairs in the government-in-exile of the ZUNR.
At a secret meeting in March 1919, members of the Jewish National Council decided to support the Ukrainian state after the end of the war in the region. Although ZUNR was defeated, and the Jewish Council did not demonstrate its full support to the Ukrainian state-building aspirations, it was clear in 1919 that the pro-Ukrainian line would eventually prevail. In December 1918, the Polish military command arrested Jewish and Ukrainian activists and interned them in the castle of the town of Baranów (Western Galicia, Tarnobrzeg county).
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[This article was written in 2022.]