After years of fighting against anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and later in an independent Ukraine, the Ukrainian Jewish community is now confronting a new threat. This threat comes from an unprecedented effort by the Russian government and others to paint a false impression of the state of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.
The recent claims of growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine, and of pervasive neo-Nazi ideology in the protest movement and the newly formed government, exaggerate the effect of the crisis in Ukraine on its Jewish community and misstate the facts.
The concerns about the safety of the Ukrainian Jewish community are real. Since the beginning of the unrest in the country in November, four members of the Kiev Jewish community have been assaulted, a synagogue in Zaporizhia was firebombed and a synagogue in Simferopol was vandalized with swastikas and other anti-Semitic symbols.
The two most recent incidents took place in Kiev in recent weeks. The director of the Ukrainian branch of Hatzalah emergency services was attacked by two unidentified men who shouted anti-Semitic slurs, stabbed him and inflicted other injuries. The next day a Jewish couple was assaulted close to the Great Choral Synagogue in the Podol district of Kiev.
Several local Jewish community leaders, however, suggest that these incidents were most likely provocations designed to incite unrest and discredit the new Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian Jewish community is as concerned about provocations by pro-Russian groups, and Russia’s destabilizing role in Ukraine as it is about homegrown anti-Semitic groups.
Contrary to the allegations of growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine, there is no pattern of violence against members of the Ukrainian Jewish community. Moreover, the Ukrainian authorities swiftly responded to the most recent incidents and pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice. Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, met with the leadership of the Ukrainian Jewish community and vowed to increase security measures for Jewish institutions.
The Ukrainian government’s guarantees to the country’s Jewish community are important to help alleviate concern about the presence of some radical elements in the opposition movement and the new government. But while the presence of the Svoboda party, the Right Sector and Spilna Sprava is alarming, radical and neo-Nazi ideologies do not represent the Maidan movement as a whole.
Although the Jewish community had been divided in its opinion of the movement, many Ukrainian Jews participated in the protests against what they believed to be a corrupt and criminal government.
Ukraine has a complicated past, and an even more complex history of ethnic relations. Since Ukraine’s independence, anti-Semitic sentiments have been used during elections and crises as a political tool to influence public opinion.
Similar attempts to use the Ukrainian Jewish community as a pawn in the bigger political game are occurring now.
To respond effectively to the crisis in Ukraine, the international community needs to be well informed and rational, distinguishing facts from rumors and innuendo. It needs to impress upon Ukraine’s new government that it is responsible for guaranteeing the safety of Jewish institutions and preventing legitimation of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
It must also recognize that Russia’s attempts to undermine the Ukrainian government’s legitimacy not only undercut Ukraine’s ability to stabilize the domestic situation, and to address the looming economic crisis and general security concerns, but also affect the Ukrainian government’s ability to combat anti-Semitism and ensure the safety of Jewish institutions.
The efforts by the Russian government and others to perpetuate a myth that anti-Semitism is an integral part of the new Ukrainian government’s agenda are alarming. The United States and others need to send a strong message that just as anti-Semitism and xenophobia are unacceptable, the cynical exploitation of concerns about these issues in order to advance a political agenda also will not be tolerated.
Mark Levin is executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.