Ukrainian Jews have got to be the most frustrating Jewish community to cover as a journalist, and that’s saying a lot. No one knows how many of them there really are; their numbers range from 70,000 in official censuses to anywhere around 500,000 or more according to unofficial assessments. At least three men claim to be the chief rabbi of Ukraine and at least four national organizations claim to represent and speak on behalf of the country’s Jews. Their identities are complex: Ukrainian citizens, Russian speakers, holders of Israeli and American passports and owners of homes in Geneva and London. And that’s before we get to the many Ukrainians who are rumored to be at least part Jewish but would never identify themselves as such.
All this in itself may not be that remarkable or unique. Ukraine is certainly not the only country where the wars of the Jews have reduced a community to an alphabet soup of warring factions and secessionists. Three Jews, four rival organizations.
But Ukraine to my mind has been different over the last decade or so — in the way that the internecine squabbling has fed to such a degree into a toxic, violent national political battlefield, and even into the country’s foreign relations.
Three weeks ago, as the Maidan riots in Kiev were reaching their violent peak, just before former President Viktor Yanukovych fled town, it seemed to be happening all over again, with the Jews breaking in three directions. The silent majority and most of the so-called leaders were keeping their heads down, trying to stay dry in the storm.
But some rabbis, mainly from the Chabad movement, weren’t keeping quiet. They were making headlines, warning of a terrible storm of anti-Semitic pogroms about to break and calling upon the Jews of Kiev to flee and on Israel to send security personnel to guard their communities. On the other end of the spectrum were a few rabbis and lay leaders trying to quell the sensationalist headlines that were spreading like a virus through the Internet. The panic-stricken cries for help, of course, fed perfectly into the Kremlin propaganda machine, which from the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis had portrayed the anti-Yanukovych opposition in Kiev as a rabble of neo-Nazis and fascists.
A contrarian rabbi
Last Friday in Simferopol I met one of these rabbis who were trying to present an opposing narrative. Having just arrived in Crimea, I had first spoken over the phone to Rabbi Misha Kapustin, and felt there was something not quite right about him. His synagogue had been vandalized by anti-Semitic graffiti three days earlier, yet he was insisting that there was no serious upsurge of Jew-hatred in Ukraine. What’s more, he had just launched an online open letter against the Russian occupation. It seemed somehow incongruous that a rabbi in the Crimean capital, which was in the grip of a pro-Russian passion, would be going so directly against the flow.
My wonder grew on Friday when we met. Rabbi Kapustin, who opened the synagogue and conducted services for only six people who arrived that afternoon, was wearing a lapel pin with Israeli and Ukrainian flags. A few hours earlier I had seen a few brave demonstrators waving the Ukrainian flag violently chased away, but the young Reform rabbi insisted that as a proud Ukrainian, he wears the pin daily on the streets. Not only that, he was not afraid to say that the attack on his synagogue could well have been the work of Russian provocateurs.
I haven’t met such a brave rabbi in a long while.
But Kapustin is not alone, for over the last two weeks the silent majority has begun to speak out, and the Jews of Ukraine have, in a rare act of unity, gotten together to say “no” to Vladimir Putin.
I wrote about the letter to Russia’s president last week, but it is so extraordinary and important that it deserves deeper attention. After centuries of persecution at the hands of czars, Cossacks and commissars, Ukraine’s Jews have quite bluntly told the man sitting in the Kremlin to get lost. They categorically deny the Russian propaganda that they are under threat, and directly address Putin and his credibility as a protector of the Jews and other minorities:
“We do not believe that you are easy to fool. You consciously pick and choose lies and slander from the massive amount of information about Ukraine. … Your certainty of the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine also does not correspond to the actual facts. It seems you have confused Ukraine with Russia, where Jewish organizations have noticed growth in anti-Semitic tendencies last year.”
They acknowledge the difference in opinions within the community, and that many of them do not have a natural affinity with the new nationalist government:
“Ukrainian Jews are also mostly Russian-speaking … many of us have wound up on different sides of the barricades. The Jews of Ukraine, as all ethnic groups, are not absolutely unified in their opinion towards what is happening in the country. But we live in a democratic country and can afford a difference of opinion.”
And yet, in the face of Russian aggression, they are supporting the new government with which “we have a great mutual understanding … and a partnership is in the works.”
Yes, they are well aware of the less savory elements within the political movements in Kiev, but maintain “that our very few nationalists are well-controlled by civil society and the new Ukrainian government – which is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis, who are encouraged by your security services.”
Putin unites the Jews — against him
This is a breathtakingly brave document, written while Russian forces are still poised to extend their invasion into eastern Ukraine, where separatists are agitating to secede from Kiev. The new government is far from secure and law and order could still break down at any moment. But the cynical way in which Putin has for years been using the issue of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the purpose being to undermine Ukrainian governments he could not subvert to his will, has finally united the Jews against him.
The Jewish leaders are perfectly aware of the anti-Semitism which is still deeply embedded in parts of Ukrainian society, and they are consciously playing it down here to send a crucial message to their fellow citizens. The nationalist cry heard on the Maidan of “Ukraine for the Ukrainians” had a nasty xenophobic tone to it; it could be heard to exclude ethnic Russians, Jews, Romanians, Magyars, Tatars and other minorities. For Ukraine to remain united as an independent nation, and to see off the Russian challenge, the Jewish leadership is telling their compatriots that Ukraine must be for all Ukrainians. That can be the only answer to Putin.