The New Dilemma for Jews in Ukraine

Anti-Semitism, though a real threat, is being used by the Kremlin as a political football.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

"It's lucky Akhmetov is a Tatar" is the kind of wry joke you often hear nowadays in conversations with Ukrainian Jews.

The meaning is clear to anyone familiar with the dark undercurrents of the political and social situation in revolutionary Ukraine. While there are a significant number of Jews in the lists of the country's mega-rich oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov, the coal and steel magnate, tops the list with a fortune estimated at over $15 billion. And thankfully, Akhmetov, the key political ally and backer of now deposed president Viktor Yanukovych who has been drawing fire in recent weeks - including a demonstration outside his palatial apartment in London's Knightsbridge - belongs to a different minority group.

Not that it takes much to arouse the ancient hatred in Ukraine at the best of times. This is the country where the grave of a 13-year-old boy whose mysterious death 103 years ago triggered the infamous Beilis Trial, the last blood libel in Europe, is still a site of pilgrimage for thousands of Ukrainians who continue to believe he was murdered by the Jews on the eve of Passover who then used his blood for matzo bread. Openly anti-Semitic parties have been a fixture on the political scene here since independence in 1991.

Yet despite the ever-present menace, Jewish life and Jews as individuals have flourished in Ukraine in recent decades. Even after most of the Jews emigrated in the early 1990s to Israel and the west, at least 200,000 remain, many of them prosperous, and communal life is vibrant if fractious (at least three rabbis claim to be the chief rabbi of Kiev). Whatever the government of the day, whether pro-Russian or more western-friendly, the authorities, taking the concerns of the community seriously, have provided security for synagogues and Jewish schools and generally kept anti-Semitism on the margins.

And over the last few weeks, as law and order broke down in Kiev and other cities, there has been a rise in attacks on Jews which has barely gone noticed in the wider story of the Independence Square revolution.

Harbingers of pogroms?

At least three beatings of Jews and two vandalism attacks on synagogues have taken place in central Kiev, not far from the anti-Yanukovych demonstrations. And it has spread further afield – this week there was a report of a Molotov cocktail attack on a synagogue and Jewish community center in Zaporozhye, in southeastern Ukraine.

These aren't the pogroms of old, but many Jews in Ukraine are quietly wondering whether they may be harbingers.

"The greatest concern is what happens if a mob is suddenly incited to go and attack a synagogue or a Jewish school - in the current situation, will the police go out of their way to stop them?" asked a senior official in a Ukrainian Jewish organization.

The greatest worry now is not the uptick in anti-Semitic incidents but the major presence of ultra-nationalist movements, especially the prominence of the Svoboda party and Pravy Sektor (right sector) members among the demonstrators. Many of them are calling their political opponents "Zhids" and flying flags with neo-Nazi symbols. There have also been reports, from reliable sources, of these movements distributing freshly translated editions of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Independence Square.

While they don't represent the majority of protestors, some observers have estimated them at around thirty percent and belonging predominantly to the more militant, violent vanguard. Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok is one of the three main leaders of the opposition now in power and there are rumors that he may be named a minister in the interim government.

"We have many unpleasant things from Svoboda members" says Rabbi Reuven Stamov of the Masoret community in Kiev. "So far there has been a distance between words and actions, which we hope will be kept. The authorities haven't done enough to find who was behind the latest attacks, but I suppose they have had their hands full. And it isn't clear where the attackers came from, it could have been someone from the former regime who wanted to smear the opposition."

That is currently the biggest dilemma for Jews in Ukraine - how best to speak out now against anti-Semitism when they are fully aware that whatever they say could be used by either side to further political agendas.

Russia, which supported the Yanukovych government right to its end and continues to oppose the new leaders in Kiev, has sought to portray them as "fascists" and "neo-Nazi" in both statements by officials in Moscow and in the coverage of both the Kremlin-controlled Russian media and carefully placed reports in the western media where the anti-Semitic element has especially been played up. It has made covering and analyzing the Ukrainian situation difficult also for many objective observers.

While that element is inarguably present in Kiev, the Kremlin's propaganda has been used to smear the entire Ukrainian opposition to Yanukovych. And there is nothing new about that.

For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has been trying to portray Ukrainian leaders he disfavored as allowing anti-Semitism to run rampant. This can be viewed as a cynical ploy which seems to be based on a belief that Jews wield inordinate influence in the west. Putin has had Jewish partners in this, chiefly the Chabad-Lubavitch movement which has been given by the Kremlin effective control of Jewish communal matters in Russia. In return, Chabad rabbis routinely extol Putin and his vigilance against anti-Semitism while questioning the situation over the border. "The government doesn't allow any anti-Semitism in Russia," said the Chabad Rabbi of Sochi Ari Edelkopf in an interview with Haaretz last month. "In Ukraine it's another matter.”

This attitude has caused much dismay among Ukrainian Jewish leaders who feel their community's safety is being used as a political football between Moscow and Kiev. While this rarely comes out in the open, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the veteran chief rabbi of Kiev responded angrily to a statement of support for the Jews of Ukraine by Rabbi Berel Lazar, Chabad's chief rabbi of Russia, regarded by many as "Putin's rabbi" saying "plenty of anti-Semites in Russia can use the help of Berel Lazar before he worries about anti-Semitism in Ukraine."

As Ukraine is still on the brink of chaos, the stakes now for all involved are much higher. The Jews who are more involved in politics tend to be of the more assimilated type, those who are more involved in community life try to keep out of it. Many Jews living in the Soviet Union hid their origins and rumors abound about the identity of senior political figures, including former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, who some insist had a Jewish father. "Go to Dnipopetrovsk and every kid will tell you Yulia is Jewish" says one community official. In some circles these rumors are used against them, others respect them more for it. It's all part of political life in Ukraine.

In a rare move, one of Chief Rabbi Bleich's assistants, Rabbi Hillel Cohen, visited Independence Square a few weeks ago, and spoke on behalf of the community from the central stage. "He spoke about national unity and the need for all Ukrainians groups to stick together" says a Jewish activist. "It wasn't overtly political but it was a clever move, especially as he spoke in Ukrainian and not Russian. Even though there were ultra-nationalists in the crowd, he was well received and no-one shouted against him, so that was a good sign."

"I don't think anti-Semitism has suddenly got worse all of a sudden" says Rabbi Yonatan Markovich, leader of one of the Chabad communities in Kiev. "They always blamed Jews here for every problem. They have a saying here - 'If there's no water in the tap, it's because the Jews drank it.’ But I haven't seen everyone now blaming the Jews for what's gone wrong. As rabbis we don't get involved, we try and get along with whoever is in power, but there are Jewish politicians and businessmen on both sides." Rabbi Markovich also suspects that in some cases, attacks against Jews may have been made with the intention of smearing the opposition, such as this week's attack on the Zaporozhye synagogue. "It's in the Russian area, which is supposed to be less anti-Semitic, so maybe it was a provocation."

Israel has also made sure to keep out of the Ukrainian upheaval. With strategic ties with both the European Union and Russia, Israel has no axe to grind. "Ukraine is not a world power but it's a large country which will either be a member of the European Union in the future or Russia's main ally" says former ambassador to Ukraine, Zvi Magen. "So either way, it's good we have a positive relationship with them."

But there are those who are trying to drag Israel in. For example the Chabad-backed Rabbinical Center of Europe (RCE) which sent on Tuesday an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, highlighting the anti-Semitic element within "the opposition" and calling upon the government to send Israeli security personnel to Ukraine to guard Jewish institutions. The RCE were echoing the call of Chabad Rabbi Reuven Azman, who called upon the Jews last week to "flee Kiev" and leave Ukraine if they could and also called for Israeli security.

Some in the community blame the Chabad rabbis for working on the Kremlin's behalf. Rabbi Azman denied he has any ties to the Russian government but refused to be interviewed. Most other Jewish leaders have preferred not to let off distress signals.

"I don't agree with Azman" says Rabbi Stamov. "When a country goes through a revolution, it's a dangerous period for everyone, not only for Jews. I'm always happy when Jews immigrate to Israel but I don't want them to do it because they have to escape. How will we look to the rest of Ukraine if we run away?"

A woman walks past burnt trucks near Parliament in Kiev February 23, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Anti-government protestors wait near a fire in front of a parliamentary building in Kiev on February 25, 2014. Credit: AFP

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