Why Tiny Ukraine Jewish Community Plays Key Role in Propaganda War

News Analysis

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By Paul Berger

Published March 06, 2014, issue of March 14, 2014.
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. Meanwhile, Dymtro Yarosh, whose far-right group, Right Sector played a militant role in the protests, met with Reuven Din El, Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, on February 26, and promised to suppress anti-Semitism. According to the BBC, the Right Sector views even Svoboda as “too liberal and conformist.”

Estimates for the number of Jews in Ukraine vary widely, a common problem across the former Soviet Union where decades of state-enforced atheism and high rates of intermarriage complicate Jewish identity.

In a 2001 census, 103,000 Ukrainians identified as Jewish, according to the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. The Israeli government estimates that about 85% of Ukrainian Jews play no role in communal life.
“They’re visible only to Westerners,” said Zvi Gitelman, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan who specializes in the former Soviet Union. “Within Ukraine itself, the Jews as a body play no role at all.”

Nevertheless, after Putin condemned the movement that ousted Yanukovich as one dominated by “nationalist and anti-Semitic forces,” a coalition of Ukrainian-Jewish leaders signed an open letter to him objecting vigorously. Ukrainian nationalists, the Jewish leaders wrote, are being tightly controlled by the new government, adding that they “do not dare show anti-Semitism or other xenophobic behavior…. which is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis, who are encouraged by your security services.”

The letter was published by the Vaad of Ukraine, an umbrella group that says it represents 265 Jewish organizations from 94 Ukrainian cities.

Although the Vaad represents a large percentage of the small number of Jewishly active members of Ukrainian society, it is by no means representative of the community as a whole.

Gitelman said that Ukrainian Jewry, like Ukrainian society, is highly fragmented. “There are several organizations that claim to be national roof organizations of Ukrainian Jewry,” Gitelman said. “It’s all chiefs and no Indians.”

One symbol of that fracture can be seen in the wildly different actions of two of Ukraine’s leading rabbis over the past few months.

In the waning days of President Viktor Yanukovich’s power, Moshe Reuven Azman, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, warned Jews to flee Kiev and, if possible, Ukraine, citing the possibility of anti-Semitic attacks from anti-Yanukovich protestors.


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