Even in a part of the world that gave us the word “pogrom,” the frequency of antisemitic violence in Ukraine in recent weeks has been striking. In just four days at the end of September, three separate attacks on Jews were reported in Sevastopol, Cherkassy and Zhitomir, capping a summer that featured at least three other antisemitic assaults. In addition, on October 5 the home of a rabbi in Uzhgorod was robbed and set on fire.
These attacks have three factors in common: Most took place near a synagogue or Jewish community center in what appear to have been well-planned ambushes; the victims were all religiously observant, and therefore extremely visible, Jews; and most disturbing of all, with the exception of the Sevastopol attack, police have failed to make any arrests.
While some Ukrainian law enforcement officials dismiss these attacks as acts of “ordinary hooliganism,” these acts of violence may be part of an organized, albeit still relatively small-scale, campaign to terrorize the Jewish community.
The Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union’s monitor in Kiev, Vyacheslav Likhachyov, has reported a long list of incidents, most of which were confirmed by subsequent media reports:
The city of Zhitomir in western Ukraine, whose population was once heavily Jewish, now appears to be particularly dangerous for Jews.
On September 27, four youths lurking near a synagogue in Zhitomir ambushed Mendel Lichshtein, an Israeli citizen. Lichshtein was armed with mace and used it to good effect, causing the youths to flee before they were able to harm him. In July, Rabbi Shlomo Vilgen was accosted by a mob of around 20 people shouting antisemitic slogans near the synagogue.
In August, two neo-Nazis attacked Nokhum Tamarin, director of the local branch of the Federation of Jewish Communities, and his wife Brakha. The youths hit their victims several times in the face, and right before fleeing punched Brakha Tamarin one last time as she lay on the ground. On August 16, a young man barged into the synagogue during services and smashed a window. He has yet to be identified.
Rabbi Ariel Chaikin, Chabad’s chief rabbi of Ukraine, responded to these incidents with an open letter to Ukrainian officials decrying the fact that Jews “feel that they are in danger” in Zhitomir. “They are constantly threatened, they are insulted on the street, and people throw things at them,” he wrote.
Unfortunately, Zhitomir is not the only Ukrainian city where antisemitic violence is a serious problem. On September 28, the chief rabbi of Sevastopol, Rabbi Binyamin Wolf, was on his way to Friday prayers when he was surrounded by four thugs who taunted him with antisemitic slurs and broke his nose. To their credit, police detained two suspects.
On September 29 in Cherkassy, Chabad Rabbi Yosef Rafaelov and two yeshiva students from Israel were ambushed near the synagogue by a group of men who beat and kicked them repeatedly. Police questioned the victims, but they were unable to give the officers concise descriptions of their assailants.
At least 55 racist attacks took place in Ukraine since October 2006, including 10 against Jews, with Africans, Asians and Arabs making up the bulk of the remainder. Seven of the victims died.
What are the factors behind this wave of violence, aside from the historical dislike of Jews endemic to the region? One obvious change is the emergence of a neo-Nazi movement in Ukraine. While not as numerous as their comrades in Russia, where neo-Nazi gangs came on the scene a full decade earlier, Ukrainian neo-Nazis are just as violent. It is probably not a coincidence that they are most active in regions of Ukraine that have close cultural and political ties to Russia.
The main difference is that in Ukraine, Jews are the primary target. Since 1991, millions of people from the predominantly Muslim south of what used to be the Soviet Union have migrated to Russia. After 13 years of war in Chechnya, many Russians feel that they are being invaded by followers of a hostile religion bent on their subjugation.
Therefore, while attacks against Jews still take place in Russia with disturbing regularity, the extreme right there is more focused on Muslims, who are perceived as a greater threat. While this may be only a temporary reprieve, Jews are lower down on the hit list of Russian neo-Nazis than they were 10 years ago — though this may be more a result of an overall increase in xenophobia rather than more tolerance for Jews.
In Ukraine, migration flows are considerably lower, and with the exception of localized clashes between Crimean Tatars and ethnic Russian nationalists, Islamophobia is a less potent force. Instead, Jews are the neo-Nazis’ primary target, a sentiment stoked by some politicians — including several members of parliament — who in recent years have publicly incited violence against Jews and accused them of everything from looting the country’s banks to involvement in Stalin’s genocidal famine of the 1930s. With the exception of Oleg Tyagnybok, who was expelled from President Viktor Yushchenko’s political party after a particularly bloodthirsty speech, no Ukrainian politician has ever faced negative consequences for demonizing Jews.
Instead there seems to be fertile ground for just that sort of demagoguery. Late last year, a poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology found that 36% of respondents do not want Jews to be citizens of Ukraine, 10 points higher than a similar poll in 1994. With Ukraine mired in a cycle of political instability since the Orange Revolution, opportunities for unscrupulous politicians to profit from stoking antisemitic sentiment are likely to increase. If so, more violence will surely follow.
Nickolai Butkevich is director of research and advocacy at UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union.