Kiev — A loudspeaker blares protest calls and a steady crowd buzzes in the background as a young Ukrainian Jewish girl talks into the camera, live from Kiev’s Independence Square.
“I want to let you know that lots of people who study Hebrew together with me are going to Euromaidan after classes every single day,” she said, referring to the protest movement that camped out for months on the square prior to its success in ousting the country’s president and his government on February 22. “My friends, my coworkers from the Jewish Channel go to the Maidan too… Here, at Euromaidan, it doesn’t matter which nationality you are.”
The unnamed girl’s message, which went viral on YouTube among Ukrainians during their recent struggle, was clear: Rabid nationalists were not driving Ukraine’s anti-government protests. Rather, the protests began as a united effort on behalf of all Ukrainians to change the course of their country — to make it a better place for all of its citizens.
But that was a message decidedly at odds with the one being publicized in various Jewish and Israeli media outlets at the time.
On February 22, the Israeli news outlet Maariv reported that Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, one of the country’s several chief rabbis, was calling on Kiev’s Jews to flee.
“I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city altogether and if possible the country too,” Rabbi Azman was quoted as saying. “I don’t want to tempt fate,” he added, “but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”
According to Maariv, Azman, who is affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, had closed the Jewish community’s schools but was still holding three daily prayers at his synagogue, just a mile away from the Maidan.
The same article cited Edward Dolinsky, head of the umbrella organization of Ukraine’s Jews, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, describing the situation in Kiev as dire. “We contacted [Israeli] Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman requesting he assist us with securing the community,” he told the news outlet.
The reported firebombing of a synagogue 250 miles southeast of Kiev one day after Maariv’s report appeared to reinforce the disturbing message.
But in a February 25 interview with the Forward, Azman denied making the sweeping statement that Maariv attributed to him. His comments, he said, were taken out of context. The situation is dangerous for everyone, he explained.
Conditions in the country have remained unstable since February 21, when the protesters at the Euromaidan got their most fervent wish and the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, was impeached and fled the city. The country remains deeply divided between those who lean, as Yanukovych did, towards neighboring Russia and want the country to stay within its orbit and those pushing to link the country to the West.