The world has roared with indignation at the anti-Semitic flyers distributed by masked-men outside a synagogue in Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine. The flyers ordered local Jews to register with the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, in light of the fact that Jewish leaders in Kiev supported the Ukrainian “junta”. Since the Donetsk People’s Republic controls all of two government buildings that were seized by pro-Russian forces a week earlier, the flyers were mainly an act of political theatre. The intent was to frighten and intimidate Jews, not to register them. And perhaps to spark anti-Semitic sentiments among other local inhabitants.
The authorship of the flyers is hotly disputed. Denis Pushilin, the head of the People’s Republic whose name appears on the flyers, as the person ordering the registration, has repeatedly denied issuing them. He claims the flyers were a provocation by Ukrainian fascists, in order to discredit the pro-Russian movement. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk has condemned the flyers, as has the right wing Ukrainian party “Svoboda” — a first, since “Svoboda” has a long history of anti-Semitism. The Ukrainians contend that the flyers are what they appear to be, the work of Russian separatists. There is no hard evidence either way, so the public is confused. A heinous act was perpetrated, but by whom?
With all the focus on the Donetsk incident, the conversation has missed the forest while being distracted by a single tree. During the past month, since the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin has shifted its rhetoric and tactics in playing the “Jewish card.” It has embraced the language of classical Russian nationalism, going back to tsarist times, and has engaged the dark forces of the Russian ultra-right. That includes using anti-Semitism as an ingredient in the anti-Ukrainian campaign.
In a nutshell: the Kremlin’s attempt, back in late February and March, to paint the new Ukrainian regime as Nazi and anti-Semitic has failed. It didn’t pick up much traction in world public opinion. So now the Kremlin is spreading the line that the Ukrainian leaders are Jews. Or at the very least, servants and lackeys of Jews. The intended audience is no longer international; it is domestic.
It all started with a Russian television “documentary” on former Ukrainian President Yulia Tymoshenko, aired on March 30. The film was a propaganda piece in the Soviet style – unrelenting character assassination with ominous, grating background music. Tymoshenko’s whole career, the narrator intoned, was one of embezzlement, criminality, back-stabbing of associates, and secretly ordering assaults and killings. Then, toward the end, the culminating “disclosure”: Tymoshenko was Jewish. “She completely hides her origin. But for many, it is no secret that the father of this woman with a hair-braid — Viktor Abramovich Kapitelman — has Jewish roots.”
The implication was that now, in light of that fact, her pattern of lies, theft and murder all made sense.
A few days earlier, the same documentary news program did a similar hatchet-job on Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatseniuk, and indulged in the rhetoric of the 1970s: Yatseniuk was not just a Jew, but a Zionist. “One must take into consideration his Jewish origin. He is a Jew on his mother’s side, and is one of the fifty most famous Zionists in Ukraine.” No wonder he was an enemy of Russia.