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I met Alexander Levin on April 16, in the basement restaurant of the Brodsky Synagogue. He was sitting with Lubavitch rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman, another of Ukraine’s self-proclaimed chief rabbis. Both men were instrumental in arranging for Goncharov to be flown to Israel.
When I related that during my first days in Kiev, several community members appeared skeptical that the attack on Goncharov was anti-Semitic, the two men exchanged a glance. “For me, it’s not very important if it’s an anti-Semitic attack or not,” said Levin, who was wearing blue jeans and a white knitted yarmulke embroidered with an Israeli flag. “What’s important is that a 25-year-old boy is attacked in the middle of a European city at 1a.m.”
Levin ridiculed one police theory, that Goncharov fell from a 6-foot-high parapet in a drunken state.
Still, members of the Kiev community remain unconvinced of claims that he is a victim of Jew hatred. Vyacheslav Likhachev, a researcher focused on racism, said there was little evidence that the attack was anti-Semitic. Likhachev, who has studied anti-Semitism in Ukraine for the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress for 10 years, told the Forward that anti-Semitic incidents have fallen in Ukraine in recent years.
He pointed out that Goncharov was not wearing Hasidic clothing the night of the attack, and that although he was spotted wearing a yarmulke when he left Brodsky Synagogue, no yarmulke was found near his body. Goncharov looks Ukrainian, Likhachev added.
“I don’t want to say there is no Nazi violence in Ukraine,” Likhachev hastened to say. But he said that Africans and Asians suffer much more than Jews. In an article published soon after the attack, Likhachev noted that on the same night Goncharov was injured, an African student was severely beaten. He said that the following week, a court case opened into a “racist pogrom” which resulted in four students from India, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan being seriously injured. “Unfortunately, the President of Ukraine did not deem it necessary to make a statement on these crimes,” Likhachev wrote.
What exactly did inspire Yanukovych to make his statement condemning the attack on Goncharov remains unclear. But on June 8, the eyes of the world turn to Ukraine as joint host, with Poland, of the European soccer championships. Ukraine’s leaders are already a target of opprobrium at home and abroad because of the jailing of opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in 2011.
Under such circumstances, the last thing Ukraine needed was criticism of its response to an outburst of anti-Semitic violence — even if one never took place.