Why Tiny Ukraine Jewish Community Plays Key Role in Propaganda War

News Analysis

Getty Images

By Paul Berger

Published March 06, 2014, issue of March 14, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

. 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.

Meanwhile, Kiev-based Yaakov Dov Bleich, a Karliner-Stoliner hasid from Brooklyn, has consistently played down the threat of anti-Semitism from the revolution.

Both rabbis claim the mantle of chief rabbi of Ukraine.

It is a fact that the past few months have seen several serious anti-Semitic attacks in Ukraine. Last month, a synagogue in Crimea was daubed with anti-Semitic graffitiand a synagogue in Zaporizhia was firebombed.

In January, two men were injured in separate attacks after leaving Bleich’s synagogue in Kiev. One man, a kollel student was stabbed. The other, a Hebrew teacher, was beaten.

Bleich and some other Ukrainian-Jewish leaders, say the attacks were carried out by provocateurs. Bleich said that anti-Semitic assaults are usually spontaneous. But security camera footage from the synagogue appeared to show that both attacks were carried out by groups of men lying in wait outside the synagogue.

“We tend to not believe this is the work Ukrainian nationalists,” Bleich said. “But we don’t have any proof.”

Contact Paul Berger at berger@forward.com or on Twitter @pdberger


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.