Anti-Semitism raises its ugly head in Ukrainian HE

Anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head in academia yet again, this time in Ukraine. According to one recent social media post, Ukrainians suffer from an inferiority complex and are being used and abused by Jews. “For decades, most of the 78% mono-ethnic Ukrainian people have chosen... their [Jewish] political projects,” says the post.

It goes on to say that Ukrainians, instead of choosing ‘one of their own’, choose the [Jewish] elite who will lead them to “slavery and self-destruction”.

These publicly stated anti-Jewish sentiments come from a faculty member at one of Ukraine’s state higher education institutions, who teaches economics and leadership in organisations.

Joseph Sytnik, chair of the department of human resource management and administration at Lviv Polytechnic National University, suggested in his Facebook post that “only near the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem do they, for a moment, take off their Ukrainian masks”. 'They' means Jews. Constructing conspiracy theories and blaming Jews for problems and failures is nothing new.

It is hard to see this kind of anti-Jewish rhetoric as an exercise of academic freedom or a new benchmark in much advertised university autonomy. Rather, it is simply a clear example of the anti-Jewish sentiment that can be found in the country’s universities. This kind of incident may raise eyebrows abroad, but not for those familiar with Ukraine’s history and modernity.


Lviv, the city in western Ukraine where Lviv Polytechnic National University is located, is known for the mass murder of Jews, committed by the Nazis in 1941. The massacre claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Jews. Today, Lviv is the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalistic movements, such as Svoboda, to which the department chair belongs.

Sytnik has taught at Lviv Polytechnic National University, one of Ukraine’s oldest and most prestigious higher education institutions, since 1997. His research is focused on the intellectualisation of industrial enterprise management systems. He is the author of more than 100 scholarly publications, including two monographs and two textbooks.

In addition to teaching and research, Sytnik has considerable experience in public administration and local self-government. He led the economic department and later served as the first deputy head of the Lviv Regional State Administration and was a member of the Lviv Regional Council, where he worked on the budget, socio-economic development and communal property commission.

Zero reaction

Anti-Semitism raises its ugly head on university campuses throughout the world every once in a while, and Ukraine is no exception in this sense. What is surprising here is the zero reaction – instead of zero tolerance – of state authorities with regard to the incident. Ukraine aspires to join the European Union, which implies sharing European values.

The newly appointed Minister of Education and Science, Hanna Novosad, graduated from Maastricht University in the Netherlands with a masters degree in European studies. When the news about the anti-Semitic post by the Lviv professor was aired on the media, it was expected that Minister Novosad would react swiftly. Surprisingly, she chose to ignore it.

The question being asked therefore is whether Minister Novosad has the right to remain silent when it comes to blatantly open anti-Semitism in a publicly funded university, accredited by the state.

“In Ukraine, their [Jews’] main task is to lead the Ukrainians on a leash, which they have been successfully doing for decades,” reads the post, supplemented by pictures of Ukrainian leaders near the Wailing Wall, surrounded by Orthodox Jews. This kind of language creates a xenophobic atmosphere and seeks to divide ‘us’ and ‘them’.

The process of creating a xenophobic atmosphere reinforces polarisation within society. Furthermore, a xenophobic atmosphere in academia makes it more difficult to maintain good relations with the global community.

Ukrainian universities like to think highly of themselves in terms of their academic reputation, but they lack diversity, tolerance and international visibility. When it comes to world university rankings, Ukrainian universities are nowhere to be found.

On the one hand, Lviv Polytechnic National University is a participant in programmes of international academic exchange and cooperation, including Erasmus+ and the Jean Monnet programme. On the other hand, the university allows its professors to express homophobic and racist views. This seems a strange duality in approaches and aspirations.

There is hope, however, that the anti-Semitic views expressed publicly by the department chair at Lviv Polytechnic National University do not represent Ukrainian people generally and nor do they represent the Ukrainian academic community. The landslide victory of Volodymyr Zelensky, a Ukrainian of Jewish origin, in the 2019 presidential elections, is the best evidence of how tolerant and inclusive Ukrainian society is.

Ararat Osipian is the Alexander Mirtchev Visiting Professor and Scholar at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, fellow of the Institute of International Education, and fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, United States. His research interests include corruption and sexual harassment in education.