Ukraine’s Jews tell Putin and his smear campaigns to keep out

The Babiy Yar monument.

KYIV, Ukraine — A banner strung across the main street of Podil, Kyiv’s bustling old town, advertises Cimes, a Jewish restaurant where diners tuck in to stuffed carp and potato latkes with sour cream.

A few blocks away, families in distinctive Hassidic dress stroll in the early spring sunshine while Jewish children play outside the local synagogue.

The carefree atmosphere hardly fits the picture painted by Russian politicians and pro-Kremlin media of a city in the grip of neo-Nazi thugs.

Josef Zissels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, characterizes that message as part of an “unprecedented massive Russian propaganda that recalls Soviet times.”

“In order to preserve your psychological health,” he says, “I recommend that you don’t read, watch or listen to any news coming out of Russia.”

Zissels reels off evidence to refute Moscow’s claims the country has become a hotbed of anti-Semitic extremism.

There were 13 anti-Semitic incidents across Ukraine last year, he says. In comparison, monitoring groups reported more than 400 incidents in France and almost 800 Germany.

Three ministers in the Ukrainian government denounced as anti-Semitic and fascist by Moscow are Jews, including Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Groisman. The new authorities also appointed two Jews as regional governors.

Community organizations estimate that up to 300,000 of Ukraine’s 45 million citizens are Jews.

Some of them made significant contributions to the demonstrations in Kyiv’s central square — the Maidan — that toppled the pro-Russian regime of former President Viktor Yanukovych after his bloody attempt to repress the protesters.

A new banner in Kyiv on Friday, a version of the Ukrainian flag, reads "united country" in Ukranian and Russian.

Of the thousands of speeches given from the stage set up in the Maidan during the more than three months of protest, only three had any anti-Semitic content, Zissels says.

The uniformed “Maidan self-defense groups” that Russian reports have characterized as fascist gangs have stood guard to protect Jewish sites and have included Jewish members, one of them an Israeli army veteran who helped organize resistance to Yanukovych’s forces.

Three Jews — Josef Shiling, Alexander Scherbanyuk and Evgeniy Kotlyar — are numbered among the so-called “heavenly hundred,” demonstrators slain when gunmen loyal to Yanukovych opened fire on them in mid-February.

“I had friends on the Maidan, many Jewish people, people from the synagogue here participated in the events in Maidan,” says Nahum Simkha, an ultra-orthodox religious student.

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During the protests, three Jews were beaten up in late-night incidents in the Podil district several blocks away from the Maidan. The perpetrators haven’t been caught, but Zissels suspects they may have been provocateurs seeking to create panic among the community.

On Friday, unknown assailants also attacked a rabbi, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.

Simkha says the Podil synagogue has stepped up security since the first attacks and received “excellent cooperation” from the Kyiv police.

Accusations of anti-Semitism among the Maidan protesters and Ukraine’s new government have focused mainly on two groups: the nationalist poltical Svoboda (Freedom) Party, with three members in the new government, as well as the paramilitary group Right Sector, which was active in the defense of the Maidan against pro-government forces.

Some Ukrainian nationalist groups glorify World War II-era nationalist fighters who temporarily allied with the Nazis against Soviet forces and are accused of collaboration in the Holocaust.

The Right Sector’s shaven-headed, uniformed militants can be an intimidating sight. Some have been reported distributing neo-Nazi material. Nevertheless, Right Sector fighters formed an honor guard at the funeral of Scherbanyuk, one of the Jewish victims of Yanukovych’s crackdown on the Maidan.

Zissels says the influence of both groups and role played by anti-Semites within them has been exaggerated.

“Even the most marginal don’t dare show anti-Semitism or other xenophobic behavior,” Zissels and other Jewish leaders wrote in an open letter last week urging Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay out of Ukraine.

“We certainly know that our very few nationalists are well-controlled by civil society and the Ukrainian government — which is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis which are encouraged by your security forces.”

The leaders of both Svoboda and the Right Sector deny their movements are anti-Semitic or that they are bidding for respectability only to nurture Western support.

“We are a classical European conservative party,” Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok, told a news conference Thursday. “The Kremlin needs a devil, and the role of the devil was given to Svoboda … they say this nonsense, that we are fascists, anti-Semites, anti-Polish. I want to deny it.”

Tyahnybok said a notorious 2004 recording of him praising Ukrainians in World War II who fought against Russians, Germans, Jews “and other scum” is fake. 

Zissels acknowledges that anti-Semitism lingers in Ukraine as in other countries, but he strongly refutes Russian charges that it’s being fomented by the new authorities.

“We are living in a Christian culture where Jews are not loved, but we do not need to be loved,” he says. “We need society and the authorities to behave in a correct manner and we see the national democratic governments here are capable of this.”

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Kyiv has a dreadful reminder of the dangers of anti-Semitism just a short subway ride from the Maidan. The Babi Yar ravine northwest of downtown was the site of one of the Nazis’ worst massacres. More than 33,700 Jews were murdered there in just two days after the Germans occupied Kyiv in 1941.

Over the next two years, up to 120,000 more victims were killed there, including Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, Communists and Ukrainian nationalists.

The area is now a park filled with birch trees dotted with monuments to the fallen. On Wednesday, stone tablets commemorating 621 Ukrainian nationalists shot there by the Nazis were vandalized.

Jewish leaders say they’re concerned that the community could face violence from pro-Russia forces — as a result of direct anti-Semitism or an attempt to smear the Ukrainian right.

“I was born in the Soviet Union, in Russia, I know was anti-Semitism was,” Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman told a news conference this week. “Thank God that in the last 20 years since Ukraine became independent, we have not seen government anti-Semitism.”

However, “I’m afraid of provocateurs, I do not want the Jewish issue to be used or abused,” he added.

Zissels is most concerned about the safety of Jews in Crimea under Russian occupation, where the local community is reporting rising intimidation.

Shortly after Russian troops began to seize the Black Sea peninsula, a swastika and the words “Kill the Zhids” were spray-painted on the door of a synagogue in the regional capital Simferopol.

“There’s a danger from provocateurs from the Russians and their Crimea authorities because they need fascists in Crimea, and there are none there,” Zissels says.

He acknowledges that not all Jews in Ukraine support the new authorities. Some groups, particularly in the east of the country, where Russian influence runs strong, have come out in favor of Putin.

However, others are contemplating leaving if Moscow broadens its invasion.

“If the Jews feel themselves threatened, they can leave to Israel,” Zissels says.

“But the Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars have nowhere to go,” he adds. Tatars are the peninsula’s indigenous Muslim group. “This is their country and in contrast to us, they have no choice.”

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