Jewish Leaders in Crimea Back Ukrainian Government, Call for Russian Withdrawal

Despite graffiti attack on Crimean synagogue, local rabbi labels talk of anti-Semitism 'exaggerated.'

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

SIMFEROPOL – The Russian invasion of Crimea has also affected the local Jewish community. Synagogues in the cities of Simferopol and Sevastopol were closed this weekend due to security concerns. Last Thursday night, vandals sprayed “Death to the Zhids [Jews]” on the entrance to the Ner Tamid Reform synagogue in Simferopol.

“I have no idea who could be behind it,” said Rabbi Misha Kapustin, who couldn’t discount the possibility that the attack had been carried out to smear the Ukrainian government.

Despite many residents of the Crimean capital openly welcoming the Russian army and calling for a breakaway from Ukraine, Rabbi Kapustin took the rare step of starting a petition against the Russian occupation.

“Many here are against the Russians but are afraid to talk,” he said. “I am a Ukrainian citizen and want to live in democratic Ukraine. The government has always provided protection for the Jews, and all the talk of anti-Semitism is exaggerated. The Russians have invaded illegally and that must be opposed. So far, people have encouraged me and I don’t believe my petition will cause any harm to the Jews.”

Official Russian spokespeople and Kremlin-controlled media have repeatedly accused the pro-Western interim government in Kiev of harboring “anti-Semites” and “neo-Nazis,” putting the Jews in Ukraine in an awkward position where if they warn of actual anti-Semitism they could be aiding Russian propaganda.

This week, Jewish leaders aligned themselves firmly with the government and against the Russian invasion. Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Yaakov Bleich, signed – along with other Ukrainian religious leaders – an open letter calling upon Russia to “stop its aggression against Ukraine” and withdraw its army from Crimea.

The letter called upon Russians and Ukrainians not to “believe the propaganda that inflames hostility between us.”

Another prominent Jewish leader coming out in support of the government is oligarch and PrivatBank owner Igor Kolomoisky, whose wealth is a reported $3.5 billion. Kolomoisky accepted the emergency governorship of the Dnipropetrovsk province in eastern Ukraine, an area where there is a lot of pro-Russian sentiment.

The Jewish billionaire Victor Pinchuk was offered the governorship of Zaporizhia, but declined the post. The appointment is part of a wider government effort to retain control of the eastern provinces, but is also seen as an attempt to counter the continuing Russian accusations of anti-Semitism within the new Ukrainian government.

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