SIMFEROPOL – The walls of the Ner Tamid Synagogue, at the end of a long, winding street leading from Lenin Square in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, are covered with photographs from the life of the small community. Hanukkah parties, Passover seders, bar mitzvas, weddings, filled with happy smiling faces of parents and children.
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The atmosphere in the synagogue during Friday night prayers was very different. Only seven adults turned up, singing the prayers in weary voices. Rabbi Misha Kapustin, the youngest man in the room, tried to dispel the gloom when he sang Shalom Aleichem at the end, made Kiddush on grape juice and the blessing on a challah. One of the congregants made a cynical joke about having already purchased "tickets for Israel."
Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin's propaganda machine are claiming that Ukraine is being swept by a wave of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Despite the official line that the thousands of Russian troops who have occupied the Crimean peninsula over the last 10 days are actually "local self-defense units," the message is that Russia is there to defend the minority groups in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine. But the soldiers' presence hardly seems to have filled the Jewish community members with confidence.
Kill the Zhids
A week-and-a-half ago, at 4 A.M on Friday morning, just when the Russian soldiers were taking up positions throughout the peninsula, a man carrying a backpack arrived at the synagogue door and spray-painted a large swastika and the words "Kill the Zhids (Jews)." He was filmed by the security camera but has not yet been identified.
"People don't hang around this neighborhood at that hour," says Rabbi Kapustin, "and he wasn't just some random drunk acting spontaneously. This was someone who arrived with the spray in his backpack and had planned it in advance."
So far, he says, the police haven't been eager to investigate and the graffiti is still on the door. Kapustin won't rule out the possibility that it was carried out by a pro-Russian agent seeking to smear the Ukrainian government.
On the streets of Simferopol there is widespread and vocal support for the Russian occupation, while pro-Ukraine demonstrators attempting to protest in recent days have in most cases been violently attacked and chased away. Despite this, Rabbi Kapustin openly wears a lapel pin with the Ukrainian and Israeli flags - a brave act these days - and has published an open letter online calling on the world to act against Russia's invasion.
"I didn't feel any anti-Semitism previously in Crimea," says the young rabbi, ordained by Leo Baeck College in London. "Now I am being attacked on Crimean websites which are pointing out that I'm Jewish. There's suddenly a feeling we are sitting on a keg of gunpowder surrounded by fire."
Not all the local Jews agree with Kapustin. The president of his Simferopol Progressive Jewish Community, Anatoly Gendin, says that he was born in Russia "and I am fine with being part of Russia again. I don't feel any anti-Semitism in Crimea, nothing at all until the vandalism of our synagogue."
"That's because you don't use public transport," responds his friend Boris Berlin. "Take the bus like me and you will hear how people talk about the Jews." Berlin isn't planning to vote in next Sunday's referendum, called to affirm the local parliament's decision to unite with Russia. "I used to work for the election commission here," says Berlin, a computer engineer. "It's a circus, not democracy."
The Jewish community in Crimea numbers around 15,000 out of a total population of two million. The most significant minority group is the Crimean Tatars, numbering around 300,000. They are the the descendants of the Tatars deported 70 years ago by Joseph Stalin, who accused them of collaborating with Nazi Germany during its two year occupation of Crimea.
The Tatars are overwhelmingly opposed to the Russian annexation. Bakhchysarai, a town near Simferopol with a Tatar majority, is one of the few places in Crimea where people fly the Ukrainian flag from their homes and cars, despite the large presence of Russian soldiers besieging the nearby Ukrainian Army base.
Dozens of young Tatar men are standing outside the Big Khan Mosque (built in 1532) at the end of Friday prayers and talking politics. "It's very hard for us, what's happening now," says Memet Bilalov. Like other young Tatars, he was born in exile in faraway Uzbekistan, returning to the homeland in the 1990s after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. "I won't vote in the referendum. It's clear that it won't change anything. There's tension between Russia and the United States and we are stuck in the middle."
"Crimea has a history of co-existence," says his friend Fazil Amzayev. "The problems are always brought by outsiders. Putin shouldn't interfere here. We saw how Muslims are treated in Russia and that's far from encouraging. We are against violence, but we are prepared to protect our families if we are attacked. We won't be moved from here again."
The atmosphere of coexistence is felt throughout the town. Opposite the old mosque, a wine shop operates undisturbed and alcohol is served at the local restaurants, where Russian and Tatar families sit side-by-side enjoying traditional Tatar fare. But hidden elements are trying to sow discord. Last week, someone scratched "X" signs on Tatar houses in Bakhchysarai, a reminder of the signs that Stalin's secret police used 70 years ago to single out the Tatars before the big deportation.
Aydar Asanov, 86, a silversmith who still works at a small center for Tatar culture, clearly remembers the day he was forced to leave with his family to "a place where nothing grows, thousands of kilometers away. They came and gave us twenty minutes to get on the trucks and threatened to shoot us. It was easy for them to deport us. We were only children, women and old people. The men were all at the front, fighting in the Red Army. Now that I see Russian soldiers coming here again and the Kremlin is interfering, I feel that it's 1944 all over again."