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Facts and Myths on Anti-Semitism in the Ukraine
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-04-22 11:28:38
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One of the latest propagandistic piece of new to come out of the Kremlin lately is the purported resurgence of anti-Semitism in the Ukraine. What is strange about this claim is that the Ukraine until only some twenty years ago was part of the Soviet Union and therefore logically one ought to speak of anti-Semitism in Russia, at least until the end of the 20th century when the Soviet Empire fall apart (1989), unless one wishes to make the case that anti-Semitism began full blown in an independent Ukraine only twenty years ago. That such is not the case can easily be ascertained by a brief survey of the facts, both historically remote and recent. Those events are documented and can easily be checked.


Map or the Former Soviet Union Empire showing the Eastern countries belonging to it

What makes the claim even more proposterous is that the particular event alleged to prove anti-Semitism in the Ukraine, as broadcasted in Russian by Russia’s state-controlled RT television, is the event of the morning of Feb. 28 when Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin, head of the Crimean Jewish Reform congregation, discovered that the walls of the Simferopol synagogue had been defiled with the message "Death to the Kikes!" and with swastikas, just to add insult to injury. Kapustin, before the threat was carried out packed up the synagogue's most valuable objects and left for Kiev. What the Russian station forgot to mention is that the Crimean peninsula was at the time already in the hands of the so called “Crimean self-defense units.” It also forgot to mention that the head of the Crimean Hasidic community, Itzhak-Meir Lifshitz, who was abroad when these ugly events took place, decided not to return to Crimea, despite the fact that Crimea had been “liberated,” as declared by Russian television, from anti-Semitic hatred by an annexation by brute force with the fig leaf of a people’s referendum to legitimize it.


Swastika on a synagogue door in Crimea as shown in a Russian paper

It is historically undeniable that for centuries Ukraine has had the reputation of being one of the epicenters of anti-Semitism. Many Ukrainians took part in the genocide of Jews during World War II. But since becoming an independent state, Ukraine is in fact a showcase of how Jews and other nationalities can live peacefully and productively. This fact was also conveniently forgotten by the Moscow state-controlled station. In fact during his press conference on March 4, President Vladimir Putin said that, "We see neo-Nazis, nationalists, and anti-Semites on rampages in parts of Ukraine, including Kiev." And as if by command, on March 14 in Kiev there was an attack on Rabbi Hillel Cohen, the head of the Ukrainian branch of the Hatzalah emergency services organization. The two perpetrators beat Cohen up and stabbed him, shouting insults with the word "kike" — in Russian, not Ukrainian. Cohen had previously participated at an ecumenical prayer service led by leaders of Ukraine's religious confessions.

On the night of April 8, while pro-Russian activists stormed state buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk, vandals painted swastikas and the message "Death to the Kikes" on dozens of houses in Odessa. On that same night, the Jewish section of the local cemetery was defiled with fascist symbols.


Swastikas painted on tombs in a Jewish cemetery in Odessa


Chief Rabbi of Odessa Abraham Wolff and Right Sector representative erase Nazi symbols in Odessa

Let’s briefly take a look at the history of modern anti-Semitism in Odessa. In itself what happened in Odessa is a window on the whole history of anti-Semitism in Russia. Odessa was the site of the first modern pogroms. In 1871, on the night before Easter, drunken sailors started throwing stones at Jewish homes and shops. Though deaths were few, the looting went on for three days before the police restored order. As the decade progressed, the tsarist government increasingly used anti-Semitism to offset the rising tide of revolutionary dissent. When Aleksandr II was assassinated by anarchists in 1881, riots swept southern Ukraine. In Kiev, a barefoot mob looted the Brodsky vodka warehouse and rampaged through the poor Jewish suburbs. Though police kept the peace in the wealthier districts, and here and there university students turned out to help defend Jewish property, most townspeople looked the other way. ‘It was a calm and sunny Sunday holiday,’ wrote an onlooker. ‘Christians were strolling about. I don’t know what astonished me more, the boldness of the plunderers or the shocking indifference of the public.’

The 1881 pogroms, passed over in deafening silence even by Liberal luminaries such as Turgenev and Tolstoy, were followed by the infamous May Laws, toughest yet in a long litany of anti-Semitic legislation. Jews were excluded from legal practice and from the officer corps, from every sort of government job, from teaching posts, from juries, from the boards of asylums and orphanages, even from military bands. They could not vote or stand in elections for local councils, and they were forced to contribute a disproportionate number of conscripts to the army. They were barred from owning or leasing land, and from the oil and mining industries. A quota system, the ‘numerus clausus’, made it hard to get into secondary school or university. Worst of all was the tightening-up of the Pale of Settlement, under which Jews needed special permits to live in the cities. Foreign visitors were shocked to see lines of migrant workers being driven through the streets at dawn, victims of night-time police raids. Not surprisingly, one of the chief results of the May Laws was the wholesale corruption of the tsarist police force and bureaucracy, enabled, by this mass of lunatic legislation, to extract a fortune in bribes. As the empire began its long slide towards revolution, right-wing monarchist groups took to blaming Jews for all Holy Russia’s reverses, publishing rabidly anti-Semitic pamphlets and employing uniformed thugs, the ‘Black Hundreds’, to beat up Jews and students. In 1905, when naval defeat at the hands of the Japanese forced Nicholas II to grant Russia’s first-ever constitution, they vented their fury in a new wave of pogroms.

In Odessa 302 people are known to have been killed; more deaths went unrecorded. ‘On Tuesday night October 31St,’ the shocked American consul reported home, ‘the Russians attacked the Jews in every part of town and a massacre ensued.’ From Tuesday ‘til Saturday was terrible and horrible. The Russians lost heavily also, but the number of killed and wounded is not known. The police without uniforms were very prominent. Jews who bought exemption received protection. Kishinev, Kiev, Cherson, Akkerman, Rostoff and other places suffered terribly, Nicolaev also.’ With tsarism’s final collapse a new superstition — Jew equals Bolshevik — was born. The vast majority of revolutionaries were not Jewish, of course, and the vast majority of Jews not revolutionaries, but it is true that Jews were over-represented in revolutionary organizations in relation their numbers. (The same, paradoxically, applied to the offspring of Orthodox priests, who were also often well educated but prospect-less.) When the Bolsheviks, came to in 1917, Jews were able to take government jobs for the first time — hence the connection, in the minds of peasants whose first sight of a Jew in a position of authority was to come to requisition grain or conscript men for the Red Army, between Jewishness and nastier aspects of communism. The fact that Jews — like all non- Russian minorities — were murdered in disproportionate numbers during Stalin’s purges did little to shake this perception.

Ukrainian-Jewish relations were not all bad. In 1918 the Ukrainians’ short-lived Rada government declared ‘national-personal autonomy’ for Jews and set up a special ministry for Jewish affairs. Its banknotes were printed in four languages — Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and Yiddish — and the head of the Ukrainian delegation at the Paris peace talks, amazingly, was a Jew, Arnold Margolin. In Galicia too, Ukrainians and Jews sometimes cooperated: in 1907 four Zionists were elected to the Vienna Reichsrat with Ukrainian support (both sides hoping to off the Poles), and in 1922 Jewish and Ukrainian parties fought joint campaigns in elections to the new Polish parliament. But in the 1930s, as Polish democracy crumbled, attitudes hardened. Popular support the moderate Ukrainian party UNDO fell away in favour of the underground terrorist group OUN, which borrowed its philosophy from fascist Germany. (Members swore to a Decalogue of commandments, the first of which was ‘You will attain a Ukrainian state or die in battle for it’, the ninth, ‘Treat the enemies of your nation with hatred and ruthlessness.’) In 1940, six months after Germany and Russia had up Poland between them, OUN split in two — the more moderate ‘Melnykivtsi’, under the Civil War veteran Andriy Melnyk, and the fanatical ‘Banderivtsi’, under the young head of OUN’s terrorist unit, Stepan Bandera. Released from prison by the Germans in 1939, Bandera explicitly declared war on Ukrainian Jewry. ‘The Jews in the USSR,’ an OUN congress in Cracow resolved, constitute the most faithful support of the ruling Bolshevik regime, and the vanguard of Muscovite imperialism in Ukraine.’

For all Ukraine, the war years were ones of unparalleled violence, destruction and horror: 5.3 million of the country’s inhabitants died during the war — an astounding one in six of the entire population. (The equivalents for Germany, France and Britain one in fifteen, one in seventy-seven and one in 125.) Of these, about 2.25 million were Jews. Most died in situ, rounded up, shot and buried in woods and ravines outside their own home towns. Others were sent to the gas chambers at Belzec — just over the present-day border with Poland — or to the slave-labour camp on Janowska Street in Lviv. Two hundred thousand people died in Janowska Street, and of all 600,000 people deported to Belzec — greeted at the railway station by a poster, ‘First a wash and breakfast, then to work!’ — only two are known to have survived. Altogether, the Holocaust killed 6o per cent of the Jews of Soviet Ukraine, and over 90 per cent of the Jews of Galicia.


A Nazi shooting the last Jew in Vinica, Ukraine

These are the more recent historical facts. Let’s now separate facts from myths as imagined in the byzantine corridors of the Kremlin. These events, especially the most recent ones, powerfully suggest that  the picture of Ukrainian reality created in the Kremlin and transmitted on their state-controlled television channels differs from the actual reality in Ukraine. Indeed, it takes someone with a great imagination to find "anti-Semitism on a rampage" in a country where the deputy prime minister and several governors are Jews, and the leading candidate for the upcoming presidential election, oligarch Petro Poroshenko, is also Jewish.

In a letter to Putin, the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine wrote, "We know that the political opposition consists of various groups, including some that are nationalistic. But even the most marginal of them do not demonstrate anti-Semitism or other forms of xenophobia. And we know for certain that these few nationalists are under the tight control of civil society and the new Ukrainian authorities."

Ukraine's chief rabbi, Yaakov Dov Bleich, declared that the main danger for Jews in Ukraine is not posed by Ukrainian nationalists but Russian provocations. In a press conference during a visit to the U.S., Bleich said, "We expect provocations. We expect that Russians will want to justify their incursion into Ukraine. Even now they are stating that followers of Bandera are running wild and attacking synagogues. This is totally false."

Ukraine is not only home to Ukrainians, Russians and Jews. There are another dozen national and ethnic groups living there. It appears that with his clumsy methods of force, Putin has achieved the exact opposite of the schism among various ethnic groups he wanted. In any case, it remains to be seen if a new cold war ensues or if indeed there is a diplomatic solution to this chapter of European history. One thing in my opinion remains certain: no solution will be forthcoming as long as facts are distorted and presented as myths and truth continues  to be disrespected and ignored.


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Lawrence Nannery2014-04-23 08:41:53
I hate to tell you, but you are way off base, Emmanuel.
YOu yourself even adviert to the fact that of all the nationalities in Eastern Europe, the Ukrainians were the most successful in exterminating the Jews in 1941.
As a high school kid and later a college kid, I watched a lot of TV, and I saw on several occcasions films about the invasion of eastern europe by the Nazis, and the films the Nazis took show that Ukraine loved the Nazies, and did all tehy could to help them exterminate the Jews, as you admit.
Also the European an American press has lied a great deal about the situation today, falsifying many so-called facts that simply say the other side did it. But the photos show otherwise. The violence was solely on the part of Ukrainians, but the press has said that the viloence was all on teh side of the Russians. This is a complete and total lie!
More important, in the parliament of fools the prime minister has called for restraining the Jews, because they are an evil influence. (!)
Proof that things are out of hand is provided by the fact that Sen. John McCain, the stupidest politician in the history of the USA, says otherwise.
YAY Team.
There is much more that I could add, and I have just begun.

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