For several centuries, Ukraine earned a reputation as a center of anti-Semitism. Mobs looted the homes of Jewish merchants in the 12th century, there were murderous pogroms in the 17th century and Jewish shops were vandalized in the 19th. The 20th century was no better, with Ukrainian nationalists massacring Jews during World War II followed by crude anti-Semitic propaganda during decades of communist rule.
Today, said a leader of Ukrainian Jewry, the country’s Jews are caught in the middle again — this time between supporters of an independent Ukraine and supporters of Russia, which occupied the Crimean peninsula three months ago and threatens to send in more troops.
Today, said Josef Zissels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine (better known as The Vaad), there is little anti-Semitism in Ukraine, despite reports of isolated attacks on Jewish sites and individuals in recent months.
Today, Zissels said, the Jews of Ukraine are not threatened, are not scared, and are not leaving. They face no more risk than any citizen, he told The Jewish Week in an interview Monday. “I don’t see any possibility of pogroms,” he said.
In a report this week at the Manhattan headquarters of the World Jewish Congress, and in a subsequent interview with The Jewish Week, Zissels urged the American Jewish community to be wary of Russian “propaganda” that paints Ukraine as a hotbed of current anti-Semitism, and to support economic sanctions against Russia.
Both sides in the ongoing political and public relations struggle over the future of Ukraine have accused each other of being anti-Semitic and of fomenting anti-Semitic acts in order to discredit the political standing of the other side, Zissels said. It is now “politically correct” to defend Jewish interests — or to be viewed as doing so, he says.
Zissels estimates the size of Ukraine’s Jewish community as 300,000. Most, he says, oppose annexation of any part of the country by Russia.
Zissels’ effort to refute what many American Jews see as a growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine follows remarks made by Ukraine’s longtime chief rabbi during a visit here two months ago, shortly after Russian troops entered Crimea. During a media event in Manhattan, Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich also hinted that Russians, possibly dressed in Ukrainian nationalist garb, might be responsible for attacks on Jewish sites.
“The Russians are blowing this [supposed Ukrainian anti-Semitism] way out of proportion,” the Brooklyn-born Rabbi said.
News reports in the last few months have described leaflets distributed in eastern Ukraine that urge Jews to register with the country’s self-declared provisional government or risk deportation; a Jewish community center and synagogue vandalized, along with Jewish gravestones; documents issued by the nationalist Svoboda party that cite the fictitious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; the shooting of a putatively Jewish mayor of the country’s second-largest city; and the release of a video that shows pro-Russian separatists denouncing “zombie Zionist” broadcasting.
Zissels declined to question whether these actions took place, or who committed them, but calls them “provocation … dirty tricks.” He suggested that such anti-Semitism is exaggerated, used as “propaganda … to discredit one side or another.”
“Russian propaganda” is designed to paint Ukrainians opposed to Russian annexation as “fascists,” he said. “If you call them fascists, one of the [conditions] that has to be present is anti-Semitism.”
At his WJC appearance here, Zissels passed out a 2014 report on “Anti-Semitism in Eurasia” by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress that states that accusations of anti-Semitism in Ukraine are not supported by “any real grounds.”
“Where there are Jews, there is anti-Semitism,” Zissels said, adding that the incidence of anti-Semitism in Ukraine is less than in such Western European countries as France or England. “There is no radical Islam” in Ukraine … no left-wing intelligentsia,” he said, naming groups that traditionally are sources of anti-Semitism.
Zissels said the Ukrainian government, and the leadership of the country’s major Christian denominations, have taken strong public stands against anti-Semitism.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said last week that the government will find and punish “the bastards” who distributed the pamphlets in Eastern Ukraine; and the government has provided additional security for synagogues and Jewish schools.
Actual or alleged anti-Semitism in Ukraine has become a matter of international concern. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said in Kiev last week that, “Just as corruption can have no place in the new Ukraine, neither can anti-Semitism or bigotry.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin has denounced the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych this winter as the act of “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites,” suggesting that one reason Russia sent troops into Crimea was to protect Jewish interests.
“The forces of social protest … do not dare show anti-Semitism or other xenophobic behaviour,” stated a recent open letter to Putin signed by Zissels and other leaders of Ukrainian Jewry. The letter challenged the allegation that the Jews of Ukraine faced imminent danger.
Zissels’ position finds support in the international press. National Post (Canada): “Political manipulation of anti-Semitism.” USA Today: “The anti-Semitism card has been repeatedly overplayed [in Ukraine]. Manufactured incidents of anti-Semitism have been cynically used to discredit political opponents as anti-Semites, whether they are, or not.” The Guardian (England): “In the information war no one is hurt more than the Jews, since mobilising the global memory of the Holocaust has real costs for actual people. The history of the Holocaust demonstrates that few things are more risky for Jews than the destruction of state institutions and the rule of law, which is openly the goal and the consequence of Russian policy.”
The World Jewish Congress last month called on “all governments, media and nongovernmental organizations and their representatives not to cause this complex situation to deteriorate by making unfounded accusations, or giving exaggerated accounts, of the situation of the Ukrainian Jewish population.”
Zissels, an anti-communist dissident who spent six years in Soviet prisons, said many Jews outside of Ukraine do not understand the community’s safe position. “The Jews of America live more in the past of Ukraine,” when pogroms and similar attacks were common, he said.
The Jews of Ukraine see the past through the lens of the present, he said. “We don’t forget what happened in the past. The country has changed.” Jews, he says, don’t fear to openly be Jewish, noting, “That’s not the Ukraine that exists today.”