Anti-Semitism in the Ukraine
My mother was born in Toronto before World War I but her parents migrated from Galicia to Canada at the end of the nineteenth century in flight from a spate of pogroms. They experienced anti-Semitism in the Ukraine directly. They were from that part of Galicia that is now incorporated into western Ukraine. My father, whose family were “Polacks”, said you could always tell a Galicianer from the Ukraine because they ate their latkes with sour cream rather than sugar. My mother’s mother was from Bukovina and my grandfather from Lviv.
For the last decade, world Jewry has been pre-occupied with the so-called new-anti-Semitism in which claims are made that the singling out of Israel for the boycott campaign is rooted in attempts to delegitimize Israel and deny Jews the right to self-determination. In the Ukraine and Russia we are back on familiar ground with the old anti-Semitism less than two months after observing International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet forces. Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith, while far from ignoring anti-Jewish slights in the USA, has been vitriolic in suggesting that Europe remains a cesspool of hatred threatening the Jewish people. Does what is happening in Ukraine prove his and Putin’s point? We cannot wait to find out until the symposium planned this fall at UofT by Irv Abella and Rob Pritchard that will focus on the old as well as the new anti-Semitism.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia invaded Crimea with so-called “local defence units” on the pretext that he was protecting Russians and Jews from a rising tide of fascist anti-Semitic nationalists even though Jewish supporters of Crimea re-joining Russia in the Crimea deny the existence of any significant anti-Semitism. Anatoly Gendin was born in Russia, lives in the Ukraine and supports the annexation of Crimea to Russia. He is also the leader of Crimea’s Progressive Jewish Community. But he has said: “I don’t feel any anti-Semitism in Crimea.”
Yet Moscow’s propaganda machine claimed that Ukraine was being swept by a wave of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Putin depicted the revolutionaries in Ukraine as reactionary “anti-Semitic forces…on a rampage”. This line is fully in accord with Abe Foxman’s belief that Europe, especially Hungary, Greece, Italy and Bulgaria, are enduring a significant degree of anti-Semitism because of the coming together of nationalist anti-government forces. Despite the official line that thousands of Russian troops who have occupied the Crimean peninsula over the last two weeks are actually “local self-defence units,” the message is that Russia is there to defend the minority groups in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine. In fact, incidents of anti-Semitism, such as the knife attack on a 26 year-old haredi Jewish teacher, Hillel Wertheimer, returning from synagogue after Shabat in Kyiv on 11 January, the attack a week later on 33-year old Yeshiva student, Dov-Ber Glickman, again after he left synagogue, and the firebombing of a Chabad centre southeast of Kyiv in Zaporizhiye in February, have been three attacks too many but, on the other hand, such anti-Semitic incidents have been few and far between.
However, as The Algemeiner reported yesterday, Putin sometimes can be AC/DC in reference to anti-Semitism for his enemies can be Zionist agents in the new version of anti-Semitism or anti-Semitic ones using the older version. “Back in 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused his regional rival Viktor Yushchenko, who was then the pro-western president of Ukraine, of having campaigned on the basis of ‘anti-Russian, Zionist’ slogans”. He subsequently clarified that to say he meant to accuse Viktor Yuschenko of being backed by anti-Semites.
The irony, of course, is that although there have been incidents in both Russia and the Ukraine, neither country has witnessed any clearly state-backed anti-Semitism. What takes place appears to be infrequent with no distinctive pattern in spite of Stephen Cohen’s allegations that Ukrainian nationalists are born-again Hitler youth, a sentiment echoed by Michael Lerner of Tikkun. At the beginning of March there was an incident at the Ner Tamid Synagogue in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, not far from Lenin Square. A large swastika and the words “Kill the Zhids” was painted on the front door. A security camera caught a man carrying a back pack from which he took the spray can. That man has not been identified. Was he a Ukrainian nationalist or was he a Russian planted provocateur or at least someone out to provide evidence to justify Putin’s claims?
Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine, accused Russia of staging anti-Semitic “provocations” in Crimea to justify its invasion. Anatoly Gendin, the Jewish Russian supporter in the Crimea of annexation, cited it as the only anti-Semitic incident in Crimea and it took place when Russian troops were taking control. Rabbi Misha Kapustin, ordained by Leo Baeck College in London and the rabbi of the synagogue in the Crimea where the anti-Semitic graffiti was painted on the door, has echoed Gendin’s sentiments and said that, “I didn’t feel any anti-Semitism previously in Crimea,” but since he now openly wears a lapel pin with the Ukrainian and Israeli flags, he has been attacked on the internet as a disloyal Jew. As Boris Berlin, a Jewish computer engineer living in Crimea, says, it is only since the Russian occupation and the vote calling for a referendum on annexation that you hear anti-Semitic remarks. “It’s a circus, not democracy.” Compare the 82% of the Ukrainian parliament that voted for the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych, when he reneged on his agreement with the opposition on ending the violent clashes in Maidan, to the vote in Crimea where there were only 36 of 100 members of the Crimean legislature present when the vote supporting annexation and the decision to hold a referendum was passed “unanimously” as revealed by Norwegiam journalists. (Siste nytt: Grisebonde ble handlingslammet kl.11:46) Nicolay Sumulidi, a member of the Crimean Parliament, is recorded as having supported the vote, but he was not even present. Neither was Irina Klyuyeva who was also recorded as voting for the motions.
Norwegian investigative reporters filled in the details after 30 masked gunmen in military fatigues at the beginning of March seized and trashed the office of the independent Center for Investigative Journalism in Simferopol. Yesterday, three journalists, Epsen Kruse, Kristian Elster and Bengt Kristiansen, from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) were attacked in Crimea by 15-20 masked and armed militiamen whom the Norwegian journalists said were Russian soldiers in disguise. Their computers and storage devices were confiscated. They were accused of being spies but were released. Reporters Without Borders said that two days earlier, two Ukrainian journalists went missing and are believed to have been kidnapped. Olena Maksymenko of Ukrainsky Tizhden was one. She disappeared with Kateryna Butko and Aleksandra Ryazantseva, two Auto-Maidan activists. They were last seen tied and bound kneeling near a military tent. Freelance photographer, Oles Kromplyas, and his driver, Yevhen Rakhno, are also missing. Censorship has been imposed on Crimea for “moral principles” and “legal imperatives” and Ukrainian TV is no longer allowed to transmit in Crimea.
Since we are unlikely to learn any time soon who painted the swastika, we can at least investigate the credentials of Svoboda (Freedom) Party led by Oleh Tyahnibok, and Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) led by Dmitro Yarosh, Ukraine’s main two nationalist parties. The latter consists of rabid militant ultra-nationalists determined to rid Ukraine of foreign threats to its Ukrainian character, whether those threats come from the east, the west or internally from groups who do not respect the right of the Ukrainian people to their own land. But Yarosh has stated: “Many Jews have fought and died for the cause of Ukrainian nationalism. I see those men as heroes of Ukraine. So what kind of anti-Semite does that make me?” On the other hand he is an open admirer of Stepan Bandera who led the fight for Ukrainian independence during World War II in collaboration with the Nazis, his militias going far beyond fighting the Russians when they engaged in anti-Jewish pogroms.
Oleh Tyahnibok is also an admirer of Bandera and he himself in 2007 as a member of parliament accused “yids” of working in collaboration with the Russian mafia who together were responsible for Ukraine’s problems. The admiration for Bandera goes to the heart of Ukrainian patriotism. In 2010, President Viktor Yushchenko had awarded Bandera the posthumous title of Hero of Ukraine for “defending national ideas and battling for an independent Ukrainian state,” an award withdrawn when Viktor Yanukovych assumed the presidency.
However, in spite of this smudge of anti-Semitism on the nationalist right and the taint of it in the centre, Ukraine’s bid to free itself from Russian domination has not been driven by anti-Semitic ideology. Many Ukrainian Jewish leaders have pointed this out unequivocally. “I categorically refute the statements appearing in a number of foreign media outlets of facts of massive anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine that do not correspond to reality!” Vadim Rabinovich, representing the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, went on to claim that, “The whipping up of the situation around this issue is of a provocative nature and does not contribute to a calm life for the Jewish community of Ukraine.”
On 7 March, prominent Ukrainian Jews wrote an open letter to Vladimir Putin calling on the President to withdraw his Russian military forces from Crimea and accusing him of using false claims of ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism to legitimise intervention in Ukraine. “Historically, Ukrainian Jews are mostly Russian-speaking…Our opinion on what is happening carries no less weight than the opinion of those who advise and inform you.” The signatories included those of scholars, scientists, businessmen, artists and musicians. The letter was unequivocal in rejecting Putin’s line that the protest movement that removed president Viktor Yanukovich was made up of “anti-Semitic forces on the rampage,” asked without qualification for removal of Russian troops from Crimea and suggested that anti-Semitism was a greater threat in Russia than in Ukraine.
They claimed that Ukraine was a multi-ethnic society with quite a few national minority representatives in the Cabinet of Ministers – the Minister of Internal Affairs is Armenian, the Vice-Prime Minister is a Jew, two ministers are Russian. Vladimir Groisman, another Jew and a popular mayor of the city of Vinnytsaa, was appointed first deputy prime minister in charge of regional development in the new Ukrainian government. The newly-appointed governors of Ukraine’s region are also not exclusively Ukrainian. Billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi, a Ukranian Jew, was named as the governor of the Dniepropetrovsk region in south-central Ukraine as a counterweight to Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, who is the media mogul in eastern Ukraine, the owner of the largest TV station that has allowed his media outlets to serve as a mouthpiece for Russia’s propaganda.
That does not mean Jewish leaders in Ukraine deny the existence of any anti-Semitism in Ukraine, especially among the marginal nationalist parties, but even then they insisted that neither Svoboda nor Pravyi Sektor, who were united with other protesters in the anti-Yanukovich protest movement, dared show anti-Semitism or other xenophobic behaviour. They claimed that both civil society and the new Ukrainian government had both under control, a sentiment echoed by Oleksandr Feldman, a member of the Ukraine parliament and president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee. The signatories of the open letter then poked Putin the eye – “which is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis, who are encouraged by your security services.” The problem was not indigenous nationalism but exogenous intervention by Russia into Ukraine’s domestic affairs by a leader who believes that the independence of Ukraine was a national tragedy for Russia.
In the Crimea, Vitali Khramov, a Russian citizen, was an outspoken anti-Semite who labelled Jews “corpse-fuckers” since, he claimed, screwing a dead body was a ritual necrophilic requirement as important as a bar mitzvah for young Jewish men. The international financial system was led by Rockefeller, a Jew, and his fellow Jewish banking cabal that was determined to drive Russia into the ground. The U.S. was a Zionist war-monger financed by Jewish money. For years, Khramov led Sobol that advocated that Russia annex the Crimea. Though deported in 2012, his separatist paramilitaries serve as the main forces for harassing Ukrainians opposed to the Russian anschluss. So when Putin and Moscow claim to John Kerry that he is blind to Ukrainian anti-Semitism and the forces of radical extremism that have seized control in the Ukraine while ignoring the “rampant Russophobia and anti-Semitism” among the group that took power, we have an example not simply of the kettle calling the pot black but of a lie, repeated and repeated like a dripping faucet so that the lie, as Mao Zedong claimed, becomes an accepted truth, or, at the very least, a legitimate claimant upon truth.
The reality is that Moscow’s reference to attacks on synagogues could only be corroborated by the four attacks mentioned above. one of which took place in Crimea when Russian forces were taking control of the area. Anatoly Gendin, mentioned above as a supporter of reunion of the Crimea with Russia and head of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Crimea, but he claimed that Jews were being blamed for the huge increase in inflation in Crimea. Rabbi Misha Kapustin felt that he had been forced to close the synagogue where the anti-Semitic graffiti had been sprayed for the safety of his congregation. A visiting Jewish delegation led by Oleksandr Feldman claimed that the ten thousand Jews of Crimea were divided based on age, with the older Jews wanting Russia to annex Crimea so their pensions would be three times as high while the younger group preferred to work and raise their children in a Ukraine allied with the west.
Putin invaded Crimea under the pretext of a massive lie about anti-Semitism. He may gain Crimea but the gain will be at the cost of a permanent loss of Ukraine from his fantasy of building an eastern version of the EU under Russian control and revealing to the whole world what a liar and bully he is.
On 2 April, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee will host its fourth annual interfaith national forum with participants from 50 countries to discuss anti-Semitism.