Jews make up just 0.2% of Ukraine’s 44.5 million population. But to hear activists, analysts and commentators discussing the Ukrainian crisis, a listener could be forgiven for thinking that the fate of Ukrainian Jews is one of the central issues at stake.
In recent weeks, Russian and Ukrainian politicians, as well as Ukrainian-Jewish leaders, have argued over the extent to which the revolution is being fueled not just by nationalists but also by anti-Semites.
But to David Fishman, an expert on the former Soviet Union at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, “This is a media campaign to affect Jewish opinion and Western opinion, and both sides are playing it.”
Fishman, who is not alone, has a point.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin labels the opposition movement that brought down President Viktor Yanukovich “fascists,” as he did in his news conference on March 4, he is courting a Russian-speaking audience that instantly draws a parallel with Nazism and World War II.
But accusations of Ukrainian anti-Semitism, which Putin also spoke out against, are of little importance to most people in Russia and Ukraine, where the Jewish community is tiny.
The same is not true of the European Union and United States — places where consciousness of the Holocaust as a central historical event gives these labels special traction.
As with many propaganda themes, Putin’s charges have a kernel of truth. Although Russia’s claims of Ukrainian fascists running rampant are exaggerated, a small but significant portion of the forces that overthrew Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich are made up of far-right groups.
The nationalist Svoboda party, which won 10% of the vote in parliamentary elections in 2012 and holds four positions in the interim government, is widely regarded as anti-Semitic. It’s leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, and many party members, have a record of anti-Semitic statements.