You know the joke: Ask two Jews a question, get three opinions. It’s an old saw, but it describes fairly accurately the response of Ukraine’s Jewish community to the collapse of the country’s government last month. And understandably so: Life for the country’s Jews, and everyone else, is increasingly complicated.
The new government in Kiev, backed by the Maidan movement, is full of promise and riding a wave of popular momentum—but some, both in Ukraine and beyond its borders, insist that the conglomerate of groups that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych and now rule the country are Ukrainian ethnic supremacists and anti-Semites. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has seized upon worries of possible violence toward Ukrainian Jews as a kind of stand-in for the message that he seeks to deliver: This Ukrainian revolution represents a danger to order and the lives of all minorities. Russian state media, widely watched by Russian-speaking Ukrainians, has made much of that new government’s ties to historical currents of extremism and nationalism. So, people wonder: Should they trust their experiences on the streets, the rumors they hear, or what they see on television? What to believe and whom?
The accusations of rampant anti-Semitism have divided the country’s Jewish community, which is estimated at a little over a 100,000. In the past two weeks, rabbis and community leaders have begun to choose sides in the growing conflict—perhaps adding to the confusion, rather than alleviating it.
The day Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman—a leading rabbi in Kiev—told his congregants to leave the city because of “constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.” His warning seems to have been borne out by the recent attack on a synagogue in the southeastern city of Zaporizhiya and the graffiti sprayed on the Reform synagogue in the Crimean city of Simferopol. But the Kremlin has been known to employ accusations of anti-Semitism for its own political purposes, and many in Ukraine suspect Azman is simply following the Russian line because of the close relationship between Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar—a Chabad emissary—and Putin.
That includes Ukraine’s chief Orthodox rabbi, Yaakov Dov Bleich, who referred to the attacks on Ukrainian Jews this week as “provocations”—not by neo-Nazis, but by Russian partisans. “We expect that the Russians would like to justify their invasion of Ukraine,” Bleich told reporters on Tuesday. He noted that Russian state media broadcasts had included numerous reports of banderovtsi—followers of the Ukrainian nationalist hero Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with the Nazis in WWII—attacking synagogues. “There is nothing of the sort,” Bleich insisted. “Anyone can change into the outfit of a Ukrainian nationalist and start beating Jews.”
This week, leading members of Ukraine’s Jewish community countered with an open letter to Vladimir Putin that dismissed the accusations of violence against Jews and minorities: “Yes, we are well aware that the political opposition and the forces of social protests who have secured changes for the better are made up of different groups. They include nationalistic groups, but even the most marginal do not dare show anti-Semitism or other xenophobic behavior. And we certainly know that our very few nationalists are well-controlled by civil society and the new Ukrainian government—which is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis, who are encouraged by your security services.”
And Jews and other minorities feature prominently in the new regime. Oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi is one of the best-known members of Ukraine’s Jewish community and was just named as the governor of the Dniepropetrovsk region in south-central Ukraine. Vladimir Groisman, a young, promising politician with family ties to Israel, was promoted from his position as the very successful mayor of the city of Vinnytsaa to that of first deputy prime minister in charge of regional development. The acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, is a Baptist pastor in a largely Orthodox and Catholic country, and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov is of Armenian origin. The new Cabinet even includes several Russian-born members. Perhaps tellingly, their religious and ethnic histories are barely mentioned in the Ukrainian press.
But Ukraine’s ethnic minorities were highly visible in the protests in Kiev’s Independence Square—which, as Timothy Snyder has pointed out, were sparked by a Muslim journalist born in Afghanistan. Protesters in the Maidan created a “Jewish Division” of the self-defense forces. Among the dead were an Armenian, Georgians, a Belarusian, and Jews.
The promotion and constant talk of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural divisions, writes Ukrainian photojournalist Maia Mikhaluk, “is to convince Ukrainians that we are divided, not one country, and that the safest course of action for Russian-speaking areas is to break away and join Russia.” Of course, that’s not necessarily true for non-Russians living in Russian-speaking parts of the country: In Crimea, currently occupied by Russian forces, the native Turkic-speaking Muslim Crimean Tatars have taken the side of the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev, worried that if they fall under Russian control they will be persecuted as they were during Soviet times.
And while many in Ukraine do believe that the animosity from Ukrainian speakers toward Russian speakers (or Jews or Armenians, for that matter) is real, others have taken a stand against what they see as a massive Russian disinformation campaign. A group of Ukrainian journalists and journalism students recently launched the Russian-language website stopfake.org in an effort to push back against some of those divisive accusations and the force of statements like this from the Russian president: “We see the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.”
Those forces do exist, and the rhetoric spewed by members of right-wing nationalist groups like Praviy Sektor (Right Sektor) and the political party Svoboda (Freedom) is immensely worrisome. But while Svoboda has over the past years gained in popularity, the number of anti-Semitic vandalism incidents in Ukraine has simultaneously fallen. When asked about the Russian focus on anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine, Josef Zissels, the president of the Ukrainian Vaad, told the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake, “There are more neo-Nazi groups in Russia than there are in Ukraine.”
Yet Crimea’s Russians, who consume primarily Russian mass media, are terrified of the kind of disorder that they saw in Kiev during the months of protests and are sure that Ukrainian nationalists hold only ill will toward them. They believe that Kiev is controlled by radical fascist forces. And they are thankful for the “self-defense” forces that have come from the Kremlin to protect them—a mobilization that itself is part of an information war—because they have come to believe that western Ukrainians want to force them to speak Ukrainian rather than Russian.
Ordinarily, it might be a good thing to have one minority group identify with the experience of another. But uniting such a fractured country, much less Ukraine’s competing Jewish factions, is a tall order, particularly in the face of external meddling. How Ukrainians respond, and whether they can overcome their divisions—real and imagined—will determine how, and whether, Ukraine survives.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman is not an official Chabad representative in Kiev.
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