Monday, March 3, 2014

Caught between the nationalists and the Russians - a tricky time for Ukraine's Jews

Antisemitism isn't new in Ukraine, this photo of antisemitic graffiti in Kiev is from 2009

Antisemitism has been a feature of Ukraine since the Middle Ages, and in recent weeks, Jew-haters have been taking advantage of the unrest to attack synagogues and beat up and stab Jews. Moreover, the nationalist / anti-Russian forces include open antisemites, and two antisemitic parties have been included in the new nationalist government.

On the other hand, many Jews took part in the protests that helped install the new government, and most observers believe Russians (and their far-left supporters in the West) are trying to label the nationalists – all the nationalists – as Nazis when clearly most are not. Indeed, the Ukrainian chief rabbi, has accused the Russians of staging antisemitic attacks to justify their invasion (here).

From Canada, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on, but I think the notion that Jews should support Russia’s invasion of Crimea is nuts. I mean apart from not wanting the Russians to re-establish their nasty empire, since when has Russia ever been good for the Jews?

Besides, in the longer term, I’ll put my money on a nationalist Ukrainian government that wants to turn toward the democratic West, not a Ukrainian government that wants to cozy up to authoritarian Russia. And if neither of these options work out, well as Abraham Cooper points out, Israel is only a plane ride away, and so is Canada, for that matter…

Supporters of Ukraine's antisemitic Svoboda party with t-shirts reading "Beat the zhids {kikes}"

Tough Times Again for Ukraine’s Jewish Population

Abraham Cooper, the algemeiner (U.S.)
We are now witnessing the latest round of violence and tragedy in the Ukraine. And not for the first time, hundreds of thousands of Jews in that embattled country, perhaps as many as 400,000, find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Historically, Jews in Ukraine have suffered disastrous losses during times of upheaval. During the Cossack uprising of 1648-57, led by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, 15-30,000 Ukrainian Jews out of a total population of 51,000 were murdered or taken captive.
The organized violence against the helpless and impoverished Jews in the Ukraine in the 19th and early 20th century spawned a new word in the lexicon of hate - pogrom. Many of our grandparents fled the Ukraine, arriving on American shores penniless with little more than a dream of a safe haven.
During the Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War, another estimated 30,000-100,000 Jews were killed.
The total civilian losses during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine is estimated at 7 million, with more than 1 million Jews shot by Einsatzgruppen killing squads and Ukrainian collaborators in Western Ukraine.
To be sure, the Jewish community has not been center stage in the current epic struggle for Ukraine’s future. The just-deposed Prime Minister represents the still powerful pull of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin has always made it clear he will not accept a Ukraine that is tied to NATO or the European Union. So far he’s used the economic carrot of cheap oil and other incentives, but possible military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, with its significant Russian population — cannot be dismissed.
On the other side are Ukrainian activists who rallied around a Euro-centric vision of the future. Anyone and anything that insists on a link to Moscow and the memories of 70 years of tyrannical Soviet rule is out of the question. Unfortunately, among the masses of people who braved beatings, bullets, and death, were members of the nationalist Svoboda party, some of whose leaders have openly expressed anti-Semitic views.
Against this unsettling backdrop, after last month’s beating of two Jews, Kiev’s Chief rabbi has called on the city’s Jews to leave. Now comes word that unknown perpetrators hurled firebombs at the Giymat Rosa Synagogue in Zaporizhia, located 250 miles southeast of Kiev. That house of prayer opened in 2012 – a sign of Jewish renewal in the Ukraine – was built on the spot where the Jews of that community were ordered to gather before being deported by the Nazis to their deaths.
It goes without saying that Jewish institutions are bolstering security and it has been reported that some public events have been canceled. One can only wonder what kind of Purim and Passover await our Jewish brothers and sisters in the Ukraine.
What will members of Europe’s third largest Jewish community do? Will they stay or go? The late Simon Wiesenthal imparted sage advice when he said, “Where democracy is strong it is good for Jews and where it is weak it is bad for the Jews.”
We can only hope and pray and that the forces of true democratic values and inclusion win the day in the Ukraine. That would be a blessing for all its people. In the meantime, today’s Ukrainian Jews are free to ponder an option their forefathers could only dream about. Israel is but a non-stop flight from Kiev. Look for those flights to be extra crowded in the days ahead.
Member of Ukraine's antisemitic Svoboda party form a human chain
Ukrainian nationalists strive to shake off allegations of anti-Semitism
Anti-government protesters say Nazi name-calling is propaganda designed to undermine their movement.
From HaAretz, Israel
Ukraine’s struggle for independence is plagued by memories of fascism. Nationalists fought more than once against the Soviets in the last century, even when it meant aligning with Nazi Germany.
This is a country that both idolizes and condemns a former leader who collaborated with the Nazis – Stepan Bandera. He is denounced by many Ukrainians and Jewish groups for mass killings, but he is also beloved for refusing to rescind the proclamation of an independent Ukrainian state in 1941.
In the past, Ukrainian Jews suffered pogroms and government-sanctioned persecution, and anti-Semitism is still a threat. For instance, the opposition coalition, which includes the Svoboda party, has been criticized for far-right extremism. Complaints have been filed against Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, for alleged incitement and racist remarks, such as saying Ukraine was headed by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.”
When Ukrainian nationalists and far-right groups began protesting against Viktor Yanukovych’s government on Kiev’s Maidan Square, many Western and Russian media outlets called the demonstrations fascist with anti-Semitic undertones. Armed and masked protesters brandished nationalist symbols linked with the fascism of yesteryear.
This included the Celtic cross, which has replaced the swastika for many modern white-power groups, and the wolf-hook SS insignia. There was also the symbol 14/88. The 14 represents a 14-word slogan used by white nationalists, and the 88 stands for “Heil Hitler” – H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. Finally, there was the Black Sun occult symbol, with which the Third Reich adorned a castle hall.
Some researchers and protest groups say the allegations of fascism and anti-Semitism are propaganda to undermine the protests.
The right-wing and nationalist umbrella group, Pravy Sektor, grabbed center stage after January 16, when Yanukovych approved laws that criminalized participation in anti-government protests. The movement’s press secretary, Artem Skoropadsky, called the fascism accusations “forms of official Russian propaganda that successfully change the meaning of ‘nationalism’ to ‘Nazism.’”
Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian researcher of European far-right groups and a fellow at the Radicalism and New Media Research Group in Britain, has said neo-Nazi groups are only a very small part of the protest.
“The movement is tolerant of other organizations’ extremist views but does not necessarily support them,” Shekhovtsov said. “They don’t exclude people and want to unite protesters for a stronger opposition.”
Some Pravy Sektor protesters on the Maidan sported yellow armbands with the wolf hook symbol revealing their specific political party affiliation—that of the Social National Assembly (SNA), a largely Kiev-based neo-Nazi organization. Other more openly anti-Semitic parties are White Hammer and C14, the neo-Nazi youth wing of the Svoboda party.
According to Pravy Sektor’s press secretary, the movement consists of many different groups and individuals. “This is not just a long-term rally, but a national, liberation movement,” he said in early February.
Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale, summarized the name-calling in an article for The New York Review of Books. He called it an “attempt to reduce the social tensions in a complex country to a battle of symbols about the past.”
Heroic picture of the past
Protesters have marched carrying photos of Bandera and under red-and-black flags of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the nationalist paramilitary and later partisan army that fought both the Nazis and the Soviets. On Maidan Square, these images represent the history of war and struggle for Ukraine’s sovereignty, not Nazism, said Vyacheslav Likhachev, a researcher at the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.
According to Likhachev, “the provocative symbols have to be understood in the context of a Ukrainian, heroic picture of the past. In a contemporary context, it is not correct to associate Bandera with neo-Nazis.”
Two attacks on Kiev Jews took place in one week in January and added fuel to the name calling. Also, last Saturday, a Ukrainian rabbi called on Kiev’s Jews to leave the city, fearing that the small community could fall victim to the increasing violence. At least four Jewish protesters were killed during demonstrations in the days leading up to Yanukovych’s ouster by parliament. Overall, more than 70 Ukrainians were killed.
Many media outlets began equating the attacks and the rabbi’s comments with the protests in general, which suggested that the protesters were anti-Semites and that the Jewish community was a target.
Likhachev says the four Jews killed were victims of police brutality and sniper shots; they weren’t targeted as Jews. “Jews are in danger because of the bigger problem of violence, which affects all Ukrainians,” he said.
Josef Zisels, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said that “the Jews of Ukraine participate in protests, though not as a community but as citizens of Ukraine who are tired of the cynical actions of the government.”
Pravy Sektor and other protesters have dubbed themselves the defense forces of the protests; they’ve actually provided some stability. For example, the protest leaders have proposed that Kiev synagogues be guarded, along with streets in Jewish areas.

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