Synagogue vandalism, Molotov cocktails, attacks on Jews. To hear the list of recent anti-Semitic reports out of Ukraine, one might be forgiven for thinking the country is a hotbed of Jew hatred.
However, many of the country’s Jews believe that the attacks are being blown out of proportion, or even engineered, by the Kremlin in a bid to foster trouble and topple Kiev’s quavering new government.
In conversations with The Times of Israel this weekend, this was the scenario painted by Ukraine’s Jewish leadership, including its chief rabbis.
Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the population of Ukraine is Jewish, but by the amount of ink devoted to the community in mainstream press during the current political turmoil, one could easily think it numbers millions, rather than the (possibly inflated) 350,000 it claims.
At a March 3 news conference held after Russian-speaking troops began entering Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked, “What is out biggest concern? We see the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.”
In rebuttal, Ambassador Samantha Power, the US permanent representative to the United Nations, said Saturday, “The whole world knows the legitimate leadership of Ukraine did not instigate this crisis, and neither did the citizens of Ukraine. The crisis came with a label – made in Moscow.”
“It was Moscow that ordered its armed forces to seize control of key facilities in Crimea, to bully local officials, and to threaten the country’s eastern border. It was Moscow that tried to fool the world with a false narrative about extremism and the protection of human rights – about refugees fleeing, and about attacks on synagogues,” said Power.
As Crimea turns to the polls Sunday to vote to succeed from Ukraine and join Russia in what Ukraine and the United States consider an illegal referendum with no legal significance, the peninsula’s Jewish communities are split on which superpower to believe — Russia’s looming specter of anti-Semitism, or the United States and Ukraine’s cavalier denial.
“Crimean Jewry is very polarized as is the population of the Crimean peninsula,” Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, the head of Ukraine’s Progressive Jewish congregations, told The Times of Israel.
“I said to our Jewish lay-leaders in Crimea that Putin is offering a ‘golden cage’ of saving Jews from the anti-Semites and ultra-nationalists,” Dukhovny said in an email. “As the history shows, the cage could be made of iron. That is a historical irony!”
The well-worn historical pattern of anti-Semitic attacks during politically unstable periods in Ukraine, however, would naturally put a Jewish community on edge. And a recent spate incidents — including violent physical attacks this weekend, a firebombing at a rural synagogue, graffiti on a Reform synagogue in Crimea — would indicate the centuries-old model of violence toward Jews during unrest is still in place.
But the question is: who is perpetrating the attacks?
“As far as we know, some incidents in Kiev against Jews were done, not by people on Maidan or the parties that fought Maidan, but by Russian forces,” said Max Yakover, a Kiev resident deeply involved in the Euromaiden protest movement that toppled president Viktor Yanukovych last month.
Yakover said Jews are targeted because the attacks garner wider attention.
“I think it’s because every little incident with the Jews or anti-Semitism becomes publicized, not only in Ukraine, but worldwide. If something happens to a Jew, the whole world will know about it in one day, through Facebook, other social media, or Jews who work in media,” said Yakover, a 31-year-old entrepreneur.
“Just a little incident and the whole world will speak about how something has to be done,” Yakover said.
His assessment is consensus among many Ukrainian Jews.
“There haven’t been any anti-Semitic attacks, not from Ukraine nationalists,” Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich told The Times of Israel Thursday while with the new Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk on a quick trip to the United States.
Bleich, largely considered the country’s chief rabbi (there are three others who claim the title), lives in Kiev, which has a Jewish community of some 65,000. He reiterated that the main source of the much discussed “anti-Semitism concern” is not from Ukraine’s Jews, rather international media that has bought into and been swayed by Putin’s propaganda machine.
“The way these attacks were executed, they were done by highly professional operatives,” said Bleich, who has seen security camera footage of some of the incidents in which there were get-away cars and clearly planned execution.
‘I definitely think this is cynical abuse of anti-Semitism and it’s working in some places. In Israel they’re buying it hook line and sinker’
“I definitely think this is cynical abuse of anti-Semitism and it’s working in some places. In Israel they’re buying it hook line and sinker,” said Bleich.
All the members of the Jewish communities throughout Ukraine who spoke with The Times of Israel this weekend went out of their way to negate the significance of recently reported anti-Semitic incidents. Many pointed fingers at Russia, saying Vladimir Putin’s smoothly run propaganda machine has blown any latent Ukrainian anti-Semitism out of proportion. Like Bleich and Yakover, others also claim Moscow even engineered the attacks.
“I do not see any signs of anti-Semitism in Ukraine; the only threat for the Jews of Ukraine is coming from Russia,” said Arseniy Finberg, 31, an owner of a tourist company in Kiev.
Finberg recalled that in December there were two anti-Semitic strikes in Kiev, but they were “most likely done by the former government and Russian to provoke hate and anti-Semitism,” said Finberg.
A member of the Euromaidan protest movement, Finberg said he and hundreds of fellow Jews took part in the protests and were welcomed as equals. “Now all of Ukraine is united against an enemy whose troops are on our borders,” he said.
Living on the edge
Outside Kiev, those living in cities bordering Russia interviewed by The Times of Israel were no less resolute that anti-Semitism is not a real factor in Ukraine — and that Russia is stirring the hornets’ nest.
Natalia, 40, from Kharkov, a city with a Jewish population of 45,000 some 40 kilometers from Russia, said it is obvious Putin is using anti-Semitism as an excuse to invade Ukraine.
“There is no anti-Semitism here in Ukraine, but there is in Russia. We just came back from a trip there last week and our relatives said there is quite a high level of anti-Semitism in Russia. We are much more free in Ukraine than they are in Russia,” she said Natalia.
American-born Rabbi Bleich, who has lived in Ukraine for 24 years, agreed. “There is no question that Ukraine is building a democratic society, allowing Jews to develop as the Jews wish — which is a different model than the Russian model,” said Bleich.
Referring to anti-Semitism as “national problems” Natalia said she feels on par and accepted by all Ukrainians and added, “There is only one problem — with our northern neighbor, that’s it.”
Kharkov and other cities near the Russian border like Donetsk, have experienced rising tensions over the last weeks between Ukrainian and Russian nationalists.
Living so close to Russia, Natalia said the atmosphere is “a little bit scared.”
On Friday night, a day after her conversation with The Times of Israel, two people were killed and dozens injured during clashes in Kharkov.
In Donetsk (Jewish population of 15,000), in a violent rally with Russia supporters, a pro-Ukrainian demonstrator was killed and dozens were injured. The Washington Post reported that governor of the Donetsk region Sergey Taruta said many of the instigators were “not Ukrainian at all — but rather Russian agents and paid mercenaries pouring in from across the border.”
In Sumy, another town 40 kilometers from Russia, Chabad Rabbi Yechiel Shlomo Levitansy is the sole clergyman for the 3,000 Jews living there. Just after the community’s Saturday night Purim celebration, the American-born rabbi told The Times of Israel, “I wouldn’t say we feel threatened. If anything people feel uneasy, tense, because we don’t know what’s going to be tomorrow.”
He said in his 10 years in Sumy, he has never heard of an anti-Semitic experience there, although he believes Ukraine has some anti-Semitism, just like most countries in the world.
‘People feel uneasy, tense, because we don’t know what’s going to be tomorrow’
“I don’t know that the Russian army will protect us from anti-Semitism. I don’t think the Ukrainian army would. I don’t know if the American army could protect us from anti-Semitism — there’s anti-Semitism everywhere,” said Levitansy.
Levitansy said rather than anti-Semitism, the major threat facing the Jewish communities of Ukraine is total financial ruin. He said up until a month ago, most communities were somewhat self-sustaining through donations by wealthy Ukrainians. Now, with bank account freezes or caps on withdrawals and transfers, they are barely keeping afloat.
“With the trickle-down affect, the poor are not getting help, which adds to their anxiety,” said Levitansy.
So will the real anti-Semite please stand up?
Just as Putin can be accused of cynically making use of anti-Semitism, internal Ukrainian politics is not immune to the tactic.
‘Every political force, power and opposition has played the Jewish and anti-Semitic card, and speculated on the Jewish question’
Journalist Eleonora Groisman, president of the Ukrainian Independent Council of Jewish Women, and editor-in-chief of news website Kiev Jewish told The Times of Israel while on a trip to Israel last week, “Every political force, power and opposition has played the Jewish and anti-Semitic card, and speculated on the Jewish question.”
“The authorities accused the opposition of anti-Semitism; the opposition accused the government,” said Groisman.
A long-time opponent to the Soviet regime, Josef Zissels created the first Jewish organization in Ukraine in 1988, and since 2001 has been the chairman of the East-Asian Jewish Council.
“We have recorded two anti-Semitic acts in Simferopol and Zaporizhya that had been aimed at synagogues. Both acts were identified both by us and the local Jews as provocative acts aimed to discredit the new government,” said Zissels.
Many Ukrainian Jews, stated Zissel, haven’t heard about those anti-Semitic incidents. “Those that do know, however, are divided into two groups by their preferred explanation: whether it’s the government and the organizations supporting it, or the radical right (neo-Nazis) from Maidan who are at fault,” said Zissel.
Groisman said many protesters and activists were followers of the Nazi Bandera movement or the right-wing Svoboda “Freedom” party.
“Now Ukrainian nationalists did not show anti-Semitism openly. But this does not mean that they do not have it,” said Groisman