Ukraine and anti-Semitism: house of mirrors

Hillel Cohen, Ukraine director of the Jewish ambulance corps Hatzalah, was stabbed the night of March 14 in Kiev by a group of men who reportedly hurled anti-Semitic slurs during the attack—making him the third Jew to be assaulted, and the second to be stabbed, in the city since January. These attacks are certainly convenient to the relentless Russian propaganda that portrays Ukraine's new leaders as fascists. At a recent press conference in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin warned against the "rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev." But some Ukrainian Jewish leaders think the attacks are a little too convenient. Josef Zissels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (VAAD) of Ukraine and a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, told the Jerusalem Post the assault on Cohen was a provocation, intended as a "justification for the continuation of Russian aggression" in Crimea and to "discredit the new government of Ukraine."

Of course Russia Today is noting other voices. They quote Mikhail Kapustin, rabbi of Sevastopol, who says he is considering fleeing after he found swastikas scrawled on his synagogue—the first time in 20 years that the synagogue was vandalized. Complaining of a slow police response to the crime, he told RT: "I don't want to leave, but I'm pushed to leave. I want my children to feel safe, I want my children to be free, to speak openly what they think, that’s the reason. This is not only for me, it's for my children and for my family."

Meanwhile, both Time and Reuters have reported on the mobilization of Russian Cossacks to Crimea to support the movement for union with Russia. They've apparently been marching around in camo uniforms in the central square of Crimea's capital Simferopol for the past weeks. A group of Cossacks also smashed the gates of a Ukrainian military post near Sevastopol, CNN reported March 7. Citing a spokesman for Ukraine's military, the report said Ukrainian troops had barricaded themselves into a room after the Cossacks used a Russian military truck to penetrate the base.

Anyone who knows the history of the Cossacks should find the spectacle of Putin anti-Semitism-baiting the Ukrainians to be amusingly ironic. Of course, the Ukrainian Cossacks, like the notorious Bohdan Chmielicki, were even more aggressive in their attacks on Jews. And an AFP report of Jan. 24 noted that self-styled Ukrainian Cossacks were among the Maidan protesters in Kiev. However, the contemporary Ukrainian Cossacks do seem to be slightly ersatz, while the Russian Cossacks are, unnervingly, back as an official arm of the security forces, and have been used by Putin for repression of protesters.

There have been vandal attacks on the synagogues in both the Crimean cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol over the past weeks, as Jewish Week reports.  We can't find an exact date for the Sevastopol attack, but we'll note that there is a good deal of ambiguity about the vandalism of the Simferopol synagogue, which came on Feb. 28—the same day that Russian forces began their occupation of Crimea. So, was it pro-Ukrainian anti-Semites? The pro-Ukrainians seem to be a minority in Crimea in any case. Or was it pro-Russian provocateurs? Or pro-Russian anti-Semites? Or pro-Russian provocateurs who also happen to be anti-Semites, and were happy to vandalize a synagogue while letting their political enemies take the blame? Take your pick.

And while this may have been the first attack on the Simferopol synagogue in 20 years, it wasn't the first attack on a Ukrainian synagogue in that long. In April 2002, when there was a wave of anti-Semitic attacks across Europe, some 50 youths attacked the central synagogue in Kiev, hurling rocks and bottles, and beating a rabbi. Kiev Chief Rabbi Moshe-Reuven Azman said the mob shouted "Kill the Jews!" as they descended on the temple. The rector of Kiev's yeshiva was hospitalized after being knocked to the ground and pelted with stones. Azman's 14-year-old son and a security guard also suffered injuries. Police denied it was an anti-Semitic attack, calling it "soccer hooliganism." Countered Azam: "I call this act a pogrom."

But don't gloat, Putin. As recently as 2007, the Vladivostok synagogue was defaced with anti-Semitic slogans. And Russia certainly has its own endemic neo-Nazi movement that has carried out sporadic terror attacks, murders, assaults on "blacks" (migrants from the Caucasus), and so on. And the authorities have been more eager to crack down on anti-fascist protesters than on the neo-fascists themselves.

And while the presence of far-right anti-Semitic elements among the Maidan protesters, and in the new Ukrainian government, is well known, it isn't like such elements are absent from Putin's own political machine. Oleg Bolychev, a legislator from the ruling United Russia party at the regional parliament in Kaliningrad, made a speech on the floor last month in which he called his detractors "Jews, mired in opposition," adding: "You destroyed our country in 1917 and you destroyed our country in 1991." (JTA, Feb. 14) Very cute: the Jews were responsible both for creating the Soviet Union, and bringing it down!

The propaganda exploitation of anti-Semitism in Ukraine by both sides is dangerously polluting the atmosphere. Putin and his propagandists (including in the "alternative" media in the US, alas) have everything invested in exaggerating the fascist threat in Ukraine, while the "MSM" in the West have everything invested in denying it. Please, folks. Get past the propaganda and face the obvious reality: Ukraine faces a fascist threat from within, and from without. Even if Putin's most alarmist claims are accurate, he is in a very poor position to complain about it.