Marching in formation, six young men in dark jackets approach an anti-government rally in Cherkasy, a city some 125 miles southeast of Kiev.
At the appointed moment, they remove their windbreakers to reveal white T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Beat the kikes.” Their jackets carry the name of Svoboda, the ultranationalist Ukrainian political party.
A small riot quickly ensues. Angry protestors rip at the T-shirts, but the Svoboda-labeled men give as good as they get. One of the men beats Victor Smal, a lawyer and human rights activist, so savagely that he is rendered barely recognizable.
In the days after this April 6 melee, Svoboda denied that the provocateurs at the rally were their men. Yuriy Syrotiuk, a Svoboda parliamentarian, called the men criminals and complained that police were not responding to an act of incitement, Interfax reported. Some suggested the men were anti-Svoboda activists seeking to tarnish its image.
But denials notwithstanding, the incident has raised anxieties among Ukrainian Jews fearful of rising xenophobia and racially motivated violence they say is inspired by Svoboda, a party with neo-Nazi roots and a penchant for thuggery.
“Svoboda lifted the lid from the sewer of anti-Semitism in Ukraine and it’s spilling out,” said Joel Rubinfeld, co-chair of the European Jewish Parliament.
A U.S. State Department report this month singled out Ukraine, along with Hungary and Greece, as places of “concern” because of growing anti-Semitic parties. But open anti-Semitism is still rare in Ukraine. Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry documented just 15 cases of anti-Semitic violence in 2012. In France, the number was 200.
But the behavior of some Svoboda politicians risks changing that, some Ukrainian Jews worry. Founded in 2004, Svoboda (“freedom” in Ukrainian) is the latest incarnation of the Social-National Party, a far-right movement ideologically aligned with Nazism. But while the Social-National Party never enjoyed any electoral success, Svoboda garnered more than 10 percent of the vote in the 2012 elections, becoming the country’s fourth-largest party.