Why Jews and Ukrainians Have Become Unlikely Allies
The history of Jewish-Ukrainian relations hasn't been a happy one. But these days, the two sides are joining forces against Vladimir Putin.
In the propaganda battle between Russia and Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been playing up the nationalist roots of the new government in Kiev, alleging — among other things — that it is composed of "neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites." Putin’s attacks have stirred up memories of ugly events in Ukrainian history, from the violence directed at Jews during Ukrainian uprisings against Polish rule in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the pogroms of the 1800s and 1900s in cities such as Odessa, Kirovograd, and Kiev. More recently, during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine during World War II, the dreaded Ukrainian Auxiliary Police — trained by the Nazis at the SS camp of Trawniki — played an active role in the extermination of 900,000 Ukrainian Jews.
As if on cue, over the last several months, mysterious attackers have targeted Ukraine’s Jews in physical assaults in Kiev; defaced synagogues in cities such as Zaporizhia and Simferopol; and, most chillingly, distributed anti-Semitic leaflets in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk instructing the community to "register" with local authorities. (Insurgents have denied responsibility for these flyers, and some have even called it a hoax.) Given these events, it is well worth wondering what the future holds for Jews in post-Maidan Ukraine?
It is indisputably true that the revolution in Ukraine has been partially driven by elements with questionable pasts, primarily by two organizations: the Svoboda political party and the smaller Right Sector movement. Right Sector first emerged at the beginning of the Maidan protests in Kiev as a paramilitary alliance of several far-right Ukrainian nationalist groups who played a key role in the violence between the Maidan protesters and the Yanukovych government. Right Sector’s leader, Dmitry Yarosh, venerates the controversial Stepan Bandera, who fought on the side of the Nazis from 1944 until the end of World War II. According to Yarosh, however, Bandera is a passionate but traditional nationalist, and not an anti-Semite.
The greater concern for Ukraine’s Jews is Svoboda. The leader of Svoboda, Oleh Tyahnybok, certainly has a history of making inflammatory, anti-Semitic statements. During a 2004 speech before Ukraine’s parliament, Tyahnybok stated that Ukraine is controlled by a "Muscovite-Jewish mafia," and in 2005, Tyahnybok signed an open letter to then-President Viktor Yushchenko, calling for the government to halt the "criminal activities" of "organized Jewry." Svoboda shocked observers by winning 10 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections in Ukraine, becoming the fourth biggest party in parliament. Svoboda party members now lead a number of ministries in the interim government of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenuk, including the Ministry of Defense led by Ihor Tenyukh. While Svoboda has strongly denied that it is anti-Semitic, concern about the party’s ideology remains strong amongst Ukraine’s Jews.
So is the Maidan movement "more a pogrom than a revolution" as Putin has described it, and what — or whom — should Ukraine’s Jewish community fear most? Despite the substantial presence of right wing nationalists on the Maidan during the revolution, many in Ukraine’s Jewish community resent being used by Putin in his propaganda war. (In the photo above, a poster in Sevastopol portrays Crimea’s vote to secede as a choice between Russian citizenship and living in a Nazi state.) On March 5, 21 leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish community signed an open letter to Putin excoriating the Russian president for using Ukraine’s Jewish community to bash the interim government — and insisting that the real threat to Ukraine’s Jews emanated from Russia: "We know that the political opposition consists of various groups, including some that are nationalistic. But even the most marginal of them do not demonstrate anti-Semitism or other forms of xenophobia. 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."
This letter to Putin brought forth an important point: namely, that much of the real anti-Semitism directed at Ukrainian Jews is actually coming from Russia. As David Fishman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and director of Project Judaica (JTS’s program in the former Soviet Union), explained: "When we look at what is going on the ground in Eastern Ukraine, we are seeing the revival of language of Russian imperial
ideology from 100 years ago, which is both very nationalistic and very anti-Semitic, as well as anti-Ukrainian." Echoing what he wrote in an earlier article, Fishman noted that there has been a shift in how the Kremlin is using Jews in Ukraine. "Having failed to convince world public opinion that the new Ukrainian regime is anti-Semitic, we have recently had news programs on Russian state television asserting that leading Ukrainian political figures such as Tymoshenko and Yatseniuk are actually Jews," he continued. "Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and the Russian far-right inside Russia proper say that frequently, but it is the Russian government that sent such anti-Semitic extremists into Ukraine."
In fact, Yaakov Dov Bleich, an American-born rabbi recognized as Chief Rabbi of Ukraine since 1990, says that the recent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions have largely been staged Russian provocations designed to discredit pro-Ukrainian activists and Kiev’s interim government. Bleich is not a Pollyanna about the existence of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, and remains deeply concerned about Svoboda and Tyahnybok’s unapologetic use of anti-Semitic language — but he is much more concerned about Russia: "All of the recent attacks on synagogues and Jews have taken place in the east where the Russian extremists are operating. Meanwhile, in the West, where there are supposedly ultra-nationalist extremists, all has been quiet. The Ukrainian Jewish Community is definitely more afraid of Putin and these pro-Russian hooligans than of Ukrainian anti-Semitism."
Bleich also noted that the threat from Russia has actually brought Jews and Ukrainians closer together, a process driven by the tribulations of the Maidan where, as Bleich pointed out, Jews stood side by side with Ukrainians. Three of the 82 protesters killed by Yanukovych’s police were Jewish, and Right Sector activists took a lead role in honoring one Jewish protester who was killed by a Berkut sniper. In what sounds almost like a made-for-TV movie, five Ukrainian Jews who had immigrated to Israel and served in the Israeli Defense Forces actually returned to Ukraine to lead a group of 40 Ukrainian fighters defending the Maidan. Jews also occupy a number of positions in the transitional Ukrainian government. Volodymyr Groysman is a deputy prime minister, while another Jewish-Ukrainian, Ihor Kolomoisky, was named governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region.
Right Sector leadership has also publicly gone out of its way to reassure Ukrainian Jews that the Jewish community has a safe and secure future in post-Maidan Ukraine. In February, Yarosh met with Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine Reuven Din El to and told him that the Right Sector rejects anti-Semitism and xenophobia and would not tolerate it. Subsequent to the meeting, the Israeli embassy posted a statement on its website noting that Yarosh "stressed that Right Sector will oppose all [racist] phenomena, especially anti-Semitism, with all legitimate means." Then, on April 8, after unknown actors defaced a monument to the victims of the Holocaust in Odessa with neo-Nazi graffiti, Right Sector leaders condemned the vandalism and said that it was now a matter of honor for Right Sector to find and punish those who defaced the Jewish cemetery. Right Sector official Valery Zavgorodny also offered Odessa rabbi Avraham Wolff assistance in protecting Jewish property in the city, and the next day — in a moment that surely must have given Putin a bad bout of heartburn — the world saw photos of Wolff and Zavgorodny jointly painting over the graffiti and shaking hands at a press conference.
Putin, it now appears, has achieved the opposite of his original goal. Rather than splitting Ukraine’s Jews from their fellow citizens, Putin’s behavior has encouraged the Jewish community to condemn Russia’s cynical use of anti-Semitism as a political tool. And in the process, as Timothy Snyder wrote recently, the Jews in Ukraine have become Ukrainian Jews.