After years of fighting against anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and later in independent Ukraine — and for the right of Jews to live in a safe and peaceful environment — the Ukrainian Jewish community is now confronting a new threat: an unprecedented effort by the Russian government and others to paint a false impression of what’s going on in Ukraine.
The recent assertions of growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine, of pervasive neo-Nazi ideology in the protest movement and in the newly formed government, exaggerate the effect of the Ukrainian crisis on its Jewish community and misstate the facts.
Concerns about the safety of the Jews there are real. Since the beginning of the unrest in November, four members of the Kiev Jewish community have been assaulted, a synagogue in Zaporozhe 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 last week. The director of the Ukrainian branch of Hatzalah emergency services, Hillel Cohen, 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, speculate 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 they are about homegrown anti-Semitic groups.
Contrary to the allegations, there is no clear pattern of violence against members of Ukraine’s Jewish community. Moreover, the Ukrainian authorities swiftly responded to the most recent incidents and pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice. In addition, 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 government’s guarantees to the Ukrainian Jewish community are important to help alleviate concern about the presence of some radical elements in the opposition movement and the new government.
The local Jewish community had been divided in its support of the Maidan movement, but 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 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.
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 but they also affect the Ukrainian government’s ability to combat anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism cannot be used as a tool to promote a government or an organizational agenda without endangering the Jewish community.
The United States and others need to send a strong message that the attempts to fuel anti-Semitism and xenophobia are unacceptable, whether they are motivated by hate or as a political tool to influence public opinion.
Mark Levin is executive director of NCSJ, which advocates on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union.