Meet Ilya Galant: The man who tried to redefine Ukrainian Jewish history

Published date03 March 2022
Publication titleJerusalem Post, The: Web Edition Articles (Israel)
Galant depicted a Ukrainian-Jewish synthesis, giving a portrait of mutual friendship, codependency, and binational unity. For Galant, the myths of eternal hatred between Ukrainians and Jews were just that, myths

A fresh examination of historical documents showed him that the two nations actually had much in common, including their love for the land and shared struggles against oppressors.

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Almost nothing has been written about Galant's historical work. He was born in Nezhin, Ukraine in 1867 and likely died at the Babi Yar Massacre in 1941. As a boy, he received a religious education. In Nezhin, he became close with history professors at the local university and spent several years studying in the university library. In 1890, he moved to Kyiv and taught history in high schools. As a historian, he published a number of important documents and studies regarding accusations of ritual murder, violence in 1648, and Russian-Jewish relations in the 19th century.

Galant would perhaps have become a familiar name in Eastern-European Jewish historiography if Jewish autonomy had succeeded in Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe. But things did not work out that way. While the loosening of central power at the end of World War I led to the fall of tsarism and the rise of an independent Ukraine, by 1921 most of the former Russian Empire, including Eastern Ukraine, had reconstituted itself as the Soviet Union.

Characterized by a Communist ideology and a strong central government, the state coopted Ukrainian nationalism and forcefully oppressed Jewish religious and national identity (with a few exceptions). In East-Central Europe, in Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states, Jewish nationalism was shown as politically powerless.

Galant's politics and his readiness to link Jews with other subalterns against the central power had lost, and instead of serving as a model for a new type of historiography focused on united minorities, his version defined him as a hold-over, a bourgeois, and expendable.

For us today, he represents one of those "paths not taken," a Jewish historian who ran aground on the shawls of the history that he himself had tried to shape differently.

During his career, Galant managed to gain access to rare documents in Russian archives: the Kyiv city archive, the archives of the state governor, and even police files. Clearly, he had connections in high places; he befriended the academic elite in Nezhin and Kyiv, and for a time in the 1890s, he served as the private secretary to Samuil Brodsky, the well-known Kyiv industrialist. In addition, with his knowledge of Hebrew, he had access to pinkasim (communal ledgers), rabbinic manuscripts, community metric books, and other Jewish documents.

He embraced a Ukrainian-Jewish identity that broke with other Jewish historians who spoke of Jews as a unified community throughout the empire. A unique figure, Galant focused exclusively on Jewish Ukraine and he sympathized with Ukrainian nationalism. An essential assumption through all his work is that, as a concept, "Ukraine" included the Jews who lived there. In this way, Galant was situated at a unique intersection, where the birth of the national struggles in the Russian Empire – Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Jewish – was announced and liberalism – the values of a multi-cultural democratic Russia – was growing in popularity.

Perhaps the most innovative dimension of Galant's work is his portrayal of a Jewish-Ukrainian synthesis because it runs against the grain in Russian and Jewish historiography. In nineteenth-century Russian historiography generally, Jews, if they are depicted at all, are depicted overwhelmingly as profiteers who play a nefarious role exploiting the hard work of the peasant. Such was the case with the influential Ukrainian historian Mykola Kostomarov. Rarely did non-Jewish historians depict Jews positively, with the exception of Sergei Bershadsky, who in his studies of Jews of Russia's Northwest showed the value of Jews for economic and cultural progress in Russia.

As one would expect, in Jewish history, tackling the subject of Ukraine is complicated. To be sure, many leading historians such as Heinrich Graetz and Simon Dubnov emphasized violence and antisemitism, focusing on the Khmelnitsky Uprising. In contrast, an unconventional line emerged that emphasized the propitious conditions that attracted Jews to Ukraine and had permitted a dynamic civilization to form and flourish despite intermittent violence. Historians such as Avram Harkavy, Mikhail Kulisher, and later Saul Borovoi belong to this group.

Blaming others

As mentioned, Galant perceived a unity of Ukrainian-Jewish interests where others found discord. For example, he set the blame for anti-Jewish violence firmly at the door of the reigning powers; in one case the Poles and in the other the Russian government. In nearly every case he shielded Ukrainians from blame. This position is indefensible and contradicts the historical evidence, but Galant held firm, marking himself as a...

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