DNEPROPETROVSK, Ukraine – When a friend suggested that I spend the night in the local Jewish hotel before an early morning flight from this eastern Ukraine city, I rejected the idea out of hand. I imagined some dusty little establishment smelling of chicken soup, with patchy WiFi and pokey little rooms. Luckily for me, he insisted, and since on the Internet booking site at least the price seemed very reasonable, I booked a room at the Menorah Hotel. I hadn’t realized that I would be saying at the largest Jewish community center in the world, which just happens to include one of the most luxurious and competitively-priced business hotels I have stayed in.
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Imagine the swankiest Jewish community center you have ever visited in the United States, the slick new JW3 in north London and the opulent Marina Roscha Center in Moscow, roll them all up altogether and you still won’t be able to conceive the scale of what the two local Jewish oligarchs, billionaires Gennady Bogolyubov and Igor Kolomoyskyi, built here on a relatively small parcel of land belonging to the local community. It includes a cavernous synagogue, massive function halls, three hotels at different price ranges, kosher restaurants and a supermarket, the offices of just about every international Jewish organization operating in the former Soviet Union and I could go on but this isn’t a travel column.
The point of the Menorah Center, besides the wide range of services it offers, is that it stands there in the middle of this large industrial city, deep in Ukraine, the country where Jews were no longer supposed to be living. Because they had either been exterminated by the Germans 70 years ago, or assimilated by the Communists in the long decades of Soviet rule, or immigrated to Israel and the West the moment the Iron Curtain came down in the early 1990s. Instead you have the seven towers of the Menorah Center lighting up the grim Dnepropetrovsk skyline like a massive fist in the sky, reminding Ukraine, the country of pogroms, blood libels and death pits, that the Jews are still here and they’re not going away.
And by the way, this is Europe.
In a week when Jewish pundits in Israel and the United States, in the wake of the murders at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, have been trotting out the regular empty clichés about the ground burning under the feet of European Jews, they should look eastward to Ukraine, where Jews not only have been rebuilding communal life and erecting impressive infrastructure, but have also played an important role in the political upheavals in recent months. Jewish leaders signed a widely-publicized open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, berating him for intervening in Ukraine’s internal affairs and denying his claims that the new government in Kiev is packed with anti-Semites. Menorah Center co-founder Kolomoyskyi is now acting governor of Dnepropetrovsk Oblast, and has spent countless millions of his own funds in keeping pro-Russian separatists out of the region and ensuring that Sunday’s presidential elections went off without a hitch.
Most Ukrainians I spoke to this week believe that Petro Poroshenko, who won in a landslide, had a Jewish grandmother, and it didn’t stop them voting for him, or for Yulia Tymoshenko, who came second place and everyone in her hometown will tell you her father was Jewish. But never mind the rumors; the openly Jewish candidate, Vadim Rabinovich, may have only come in seventh with just 2.25 percent of the vote, but that was more than the two leaders of the ultra-nationalist and at least nominally anti-Semitic parties Svoboda and Pravy Sektor received together.
Visiting pro-Russian separatist strongholds in the east this week, and traveling with my Israeli passport, I was constantly assured by separatists at different levels that “we are here to protect and respect all minorities,” and I met a number of local Jewish activists who strongly disagree with Kolomoyskyi and Rabinovich and believe that their communities will be better off under Russian rule.
I don’t take everything separatists tell me at face value; among their leadership are Russian nationalists notorious for their anti-Semitic propaganda. And neither do I think that the poor showing by Svoboda and Pravy Sektor in the presidential elections reflects their real influence in Ukrainian political life. The sad fact is that both Russian and Ukrainian nationalism retain a nasty element of Judeophobia. But the wider society in both countries and the local Jewish communities are proving strong enough to marginalize these elements.
Hardly a trend
And if that’s true of Russia and Ukraine, it certainly is of the rest of Europe. It may be difficult to say so at the end of a week that began with the news of the murder of four people whose only sin was that they were visiting the Jewish Museum in Brussels. But the shooter, still unknown but most likely a “lone-wolf” racist of one kind or another (ignore the stupid conspiracy theories connected to the peripheral roles the Riva couple had on the margins of Israel’s intelligence community), hardly represents a trend. Two and a half years ago Mohammed Merah killed four Jews in Toulouse and now we have what looks like a similar murder in Brussels — seven tragic deaths (Merah also murdered two French soldiers) that are totally isolated when seen against the backdrop of Jewish life in Europe.
These murders are the actions of radicalized individuals, not the result of a “wave” of anti-Semitism in Europe, which any serious research proves is mainly the echo-chamber of the Internet magnifying every nasty neo-Nazi in a basement somewhere a thousand times over. Neither has it any connection, as Prime Minister Netanyahu decided, with the “movement” to boycott Israel. BDS is an ineffectual trend, also totally blown out of proportion by the Web, and while there are certainly anti-Semites involved in it (though not all BDS supporters hate Jews), they are largely non-violent and essentially harmless. But there’s no surprise in Netanyahu trying to use the Brussels murders for his own agenda.
Once again, no act of physical or verbal violence against Jews should ever go ignored, but groups like the Anti-Defamation League are the ones who are guilty of trivializing racism and fueling fears with their recent “global survey” of anti-Semtism, such that some proportion has to be injected so we can see the real cries for what they are.
Another myth that many American and Israeli Jews want to believe is that Jews are fleeing countries like France and Ukraine because of anti-Semitism. Naturally, these claims serve certain organizations whose budgets depend on them, but as a senior Jewish Agency official, exasperated by these reports said to me last week, “No one makes a rushed decision to emigrate. The surge in aliyah from France over the last year is mainly of Jews who were considering moving to Israel for years and have now done so because of the French financial situation and taxation. Likewise in Ukraine, there is a rise in the number of Jews inquiring about moving to Israel because the political crisis leads to financial uncertainty. No one has said to us they are moving because they fear for their lives as Jews, and there’s no wave yet either.”
And if we’re on to myths about Europe, then there are the hysterical interpretations of the large protest vote for anti-establishment parties in last weekend’s European Parliament elections as a return of fascism to the continent. They deserve their own column, but suffice it to say that the only truly neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic parties that succeeded in electing members to parliament, Germany’s NDP, Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik, have all directed their racist campaigns and the violence of their supporters against immigrant communities, not against Jews. That doesn’t make them any less sinister or potentially dangerous should they grow, but they certainly don’t reflect a current threat to Jewish life in those countries.
It’s true, many of the Jewish communities around Europe, particularly in the west of the continent, are dwindling. But nowhere is it the result of anti-Semitism; the cause is simply the natural patterns of emigration, assimilation and indifference. And meanwhile in the east, where the memory of real, raw and murderous persecution of Jews is so much more recent, there is a renaissance of Jewish life in Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Poland and even Kishinev, city of the famous 1903 pogrom, which last weekend held its second Limmud conference.
Anti-Semites in whatever guise they come — nationalists, anti-Zionists, neo-Nazis, radical Islamists — are history’s losers and ultimately, though they occasionally cause harm, are not the Jews’ problem. The only factor that will decide the future of Jews in Europe is the willingness of Jews themselves to continue living there as Jews. Europe isn’t burning anymore under their feet, and it’s up to them whether to put down roots there.
The Menorah Center lights up the grim Dnepropetrovsk skyline like a massive fist in the sky, reminding Ukraine, the country of pogroms, that the Jews are not going away.