For the Kremlin, Ukrainian Anti-Semitism Is a Tool for Scaring Russians in Crimea
(…) The accusations of rampant anti-Semitism have divided the country’s Jewish community, which is estimated at a little over a 100,000. In the past two weeks, rabbis and community leaders have begun to choose sides in the growing conflict—perhaps adding to the confusion, rather than alleviating it.
The day Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman—Chabad’s chief rabbi in Kiev—told his congregants to leave the city because of “constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.” His warning seems to have been borne out by the recent attack on a synagogue in the southeastern city of Zaporizhiya and the graffiti sprayed on the Reform synagogue in the Crimean city of Simferopol. But the Kremlin has been known to employ accusations of anti-Semitism for its own political purposes, and many in Ukraine suspect Azman is simply following the Russian line because of the close relationship between Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar—a Chabad emissary—and Putin.
That includes Ukraine’s chief Orthodox rabbi, Yaakov Dov Bleich, who referred to the attacks on Ukrainian Jews this week as “provocations”—not by neo-Nazis, but by Russian partisans. “We expect that the Russians would like to justify their invasion of Ukraine,” Bleich told reporters on Tuesday. He noted that Russian state media broadcasts had included numerous reports of banderovtsi—followers of the Ukrainian nationalist hero Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with the Nazis in WWII—attacking synagogues. “There is nothing of the sort,” Bleich insisted. “Anyone can change into the outfit of a Ukrainian nationalist and start beating Jews.”
This week, leading members of Ukraine’s Jewish community countered with an open letter to Vladimir Putin that dismissed the accusations of violence against Jews and minorities: “Yes, we are well aware that the political opposition and the forces of social protests who have secured changes for the better are made up of different groups. They include nationalistic groups, but even the most marginal do not dare show anti-Semitism or other xenophobic behavior. And we certainly know 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.”
But Ukraine’s ethnic minorities were highly visible in the protests in Kiev’s Independence Square—which, as Timothy Snyder has pointed out, were sparked by a Muslim journalist born in Afghanistan [« This is Mustafa Nayem, the man who started the revolution. Using social media, he called students and other young people to rally on the main square of Kiev in support of a European choice for Ukraine. That square is called the Maidan, which by the way is an Arab word. »]. Protesters in the Maidan created a “Jewish Division” of the self-defense forces. Among the dead were an Armenian, Georgians, a Belarusian, and Jews.
And while many in Ukraine do believe that the animosity from Ukrainian speakers toward Russian speakers (or Jews or Armenians, for that matter) is real, others have taken a stand against what they see as a massive Russian disinformation campaign. A group of Ukrainian journalists and journalism students recently launched the Russian-language website stopfake.org in an effort to push back against some of those divisive accusations and the force of statements like this from the Russian president: “We see the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.”
Those forces do exist, and the rhetoric spewed by members of right-wing nationalist groups like Praviy Sektor (Right Sektor) and the political party Svoboda (Freedom) is immensely worrisome. But while Svoboda has over the past years gained in popularity, the number of anti-Semitic vandalism incidents in Ukraine has simultaneously fallen. When asked about the Russian focus on anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine, Josef Zissels, the president of the Ukrainian Vaad [Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities], told the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake, “There are more neo-Nazi groups in Russia than there are in Ukraine.” (…).
Hannah Thoburn (tabletmag.com, 7 mars 2014)