Kiev — At about 1 a.m. on the second night of Passover, Alexander “Aron” Goncharov stepped from Brodsky Synagogue, in the center of Kiev, into the cold night air. The 25-year-old yeshiva student, who was staying at the synagogue’s hostel, never returned to his room. After hours of frantic phone calls the following day, yeshiva authorities finally found Goncharov at Kiev’s Hospital 17, with massive head injuries, barely alive.
Jewish communal leaders from Brodsky Synagogue portrayed Goncharov, who was wearing a yarmulke when he left the building, as the latest in a long line of victims of Ukrainian anti-Semitism. A few days later, he was flown to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital for emergency treatment and was kept in a medically induced coma. When Goncharov finally awoke, one week later, he said that his attackers had yelled “Yid” as they beat him.
Israel’s chief rabbi Yona Metzger visited Goncharov on Holocaust Remembrance Day, underlining his new status as a symbol of contemporary anti-Semitism. Goncharov told Metzger that he hoped to immigrate to Israel, calling it “the safest place for Jews.”
But back in Kiev, even many Jews are skeptical about the claim that Goncharov — whose severe beating no one doubts or condones — was a victim of anti-Semitism.
“It has nothing to do with anti-Semitism,” said Yaakov Dov Bleich, rabbi of Kiev’s Podol Synagogue and one of several rabbis who claim the mantle of chief rabbi of Ukraine. “The fact he was taken to Israel will probably stop any [police] investigation in its tracks.”
When I arrived in Kiev one week after the attack, it was with a certain amount of trepidation. “Don’t wear a yarmulke outside of the synagogue,” Leonard Petlakh, a leader of the New York-based Russian-speaking community, warned in an email. But instead of finding a Jewish community on tenterhooks, I met many people who were dubious as to whether Goncharov’s injuries had anything to do with his being Jewish — even as many also acknowledged that anti-Semitism in Ukraine remains a problem.
It is only natural that people outside Kiev would believe that the attack was anti-Semitic. Waves of anti-Semitism have swept over Ukraine for generations, from czarist-inspired pogroms during the late 1800s and early 1900s to Communist-imposed discrimination against Jews throughout much of the 20th century. Even the past 20 years of Ukrainian independence have seen spasms of nationalist-fueled anti-Semitism.
After Goncharov’s almost fatal beating, some encouraged the idea that little had changed. Russian, Hebrew and English-language media around the world were quick to report the “anti-Semitic attack” by a group of suspected neo-Nazis. Alexander Levin, a prominent businessman who has close ties to the Brodsky Synagogue and is the founder of the new World Forum of Russian Jewry, called for a meeting with Ukraine’s interior minister to “demand that law authorities take action.” Days later, Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, vowing that Goncharov’s attackers would be found, called on Ukrainians to show “tolerance for people of different beliefs and nationalities.”
Goncharov, who arrived in Kiev from the industrial city of Lugansk three weeks before the attack, had only recently been circumcised. He was not a native of the city. Over the course of a few days, I heard a variety of unsubstantiated rumors about just why Goncharov had gone out into Kiev at 1 a.m. from the yeshiva at which he was lodging. Most of all, people wanted to know what Goncharov was doing between the time he left Brodsky Synagogue at 1 a.m. and when his body was found by a passerby at about 7 a.m. in Bessarabian Square, a busy part of the city, about a 10-minute walk from the synagogue. Few believed he had just lain, unconscious and prostrate, in the city center for six hours, undetected. Several people questioned how an attack by a gang of neo-Nazi thugs in this busy part of the city was apparently witnessed by no one.