I teach modern Jewish history. Usually, when I mention Ukraine in class, my students’ eyes glaze over. But lately that hasn’t been the case. The eyes of the world have been turned to Kiev, the city that was home to Sholem Aleichem, and the birthplace of Golda Meir. People are now wondering whether this revolution is good or bad for the approximately 100,000 Jews who live in Ukraine.
The political parties that led the protest movement, and that have now assumed power, represent a wide spectrum of Ukrainian society. Anyone who was fed up with the corrupt, kleptocratic and dictatorial regime joined the protests. This included many good guys, and not a few anti-Semites.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the mainstream Fatherland Union party (whose previous leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, was released from prison last Saturday), is one of the good guys. He issued a strong statement against anti-Semitism on World Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, in the midst of the protests.
“The Maidan [the protest movement in Independence Square] does not accept ‘black hundred’ slogans,” he said, referring to the notorious anti-Semitic organization that flourished more than a hundred years ago in Tsarist Russia. “This protest has no place for hatred towards our compatriots based on their ethnic heritage, faith, or home region. We are all part of the Ukrainian nation.” He reiterated an offer to send defense units to protect synagogues during the period of unrest.
Yatsenyuk was himself — during the presidential elections of 2010 — the target of a whispering campaign that he was Jewish, and therefore not a true Ukrainian. As a friend of mine who lives in Kiev observed: “It’s totally false, he isn’t Jewish. He’s just a well-educated person.”
On the other hand, the Svoboda party, which was the junior partner in the protest movement (after Yatsenyuk’s Fatherland and Vitali Klitschko’s Punch party), is overtly anti-Semitic and, many would argue, neo-Nazi. Its party literature blames the Jews for the Bolshevik Revolution and Communist rule in Ukraine, and unabashedly uses the word zhidy (kikes). One of its parliamentarians published a Ukrainian translation of a collection of writings by Joseph Goebbels, and referred to the Holocaust as “one of the brightest pages in European history.”
Optimists like to point out that Svoboda only garnered around 10 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections, so the party is much weaker than analogous right-wing movements in Hungary or France. They also note that the Jews are far from being Svoboda’s top enemy: Russians, foreign immigrants, and homosexuals figure much more prominently in their pantheon of hatred.
Finally, the movement’s leaders were prudent enough to refrain from anti-Semitic pronouncements while speaking from the rostrum of Independence Square. They knew that their country needed Western sympathy and aid, and that railing against zhidy would only hurt their cause. But these are not compelling reasons to feel reassured.