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March 18, 2014

by Doris Strub Epstein

            As the Ukraine is torn apart by opposing factions, the 300,000 Jews  living there can be found on both sides of the escalating conflict.  A synagogue in Sinferopol was sprayed with swastikas and the words “Death to the Jews,” as Ukrainian and pro Russian forces clashed. There have been other acts of violence against individuals reported, but in all,  far fewer than anti-Semitic behaviour in France.

             Last week the Ukrainian Jewish Congress confirmed that there has been no spike in anti-Semitism.

Edward Dolinsky, director general for Ukrainian Jewish Community said most of the Crimean Jews do not view the Russian invasion as a threat.  A significant number welcomed the Russians. Putin has claimed he was out to protect the Jews against  the specter of Ukrainian anti-Semitism, in part, to justify the 6.000 military stationed there and discredit the Maidan protesters. According to Rabbi Baruch Goren, , top associate of Rabbi Lazar the chief rabbi of Russia, Putin’s positive attitude toward Russian Jewry is sincere, and unprecedented in Russian history .  The Kremlin is even  backing the candidacy of former Kharkov provincial governor Mikhail Dobkin in the Ukrainian presidential election slated for May 25.

But others are cynical of Russia’s ” playing the Jewish card”.  “Putin has been facing international criticism for a long time now over human rights issues,” said Roman Bronfman, a former Israeli Knesset member who was born in the Soviet Union.  “He needs a shield and that’s the Jews.

Anti-Semitism has been prominent  in Ukrainian history.  They collaborated with the Nazis in WW 2 and have never acknowledged their culpability in Jewish persecution.  Out of the Kiev- based Ukrainian interim government’s 22 ministers,  four are from Svoboda, an anti-Semitic party. Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnbok, has in the past referred to a” Moscow Jewish mafia” which he said ruled Ukraine.  But one of its three deputy prime ministers is Jewish, former Mayor of Vinnitsa Vladimir Groisman,  re elected for his second term with an astounding 78 % of the vote.   A significant number of Jews are among the Maidan revolutionaries.

Frank Diamant, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada told the Globe and Mail that his group is “very much concerned that part of the element that was calling for freedom and change in Ukraine was made up of neo Nazi and extreme right wingers.”  He asked Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to advocate against any tolerance of anti Semitism in Ukraine

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird met with political  leaders  in the Ukraine last week, including one who has been accused of anti-Semitism.  “I raised Canada’s concern about anti Semitism and said that “you know, all political leaders, whether the be in government or opposition, should try to build a pluralistic Ukraine that’s fully representative of the diversity of the country.”

He also met with Jews who were part of the protest movement.  They said the reports of anti-Semitism were exaggerated.  Some are suggesting Russia is behind the anti-Semitic attacks to justify their aggression in Crimea.   Rabbi Yaacov Dov Bleich head of the Jewish Conference of Ukraine and a Vice President of World Jewish Congress said, “Things may be done by Russians dressing up as Ukrainian nationalists” in the same way “the Nazis did when they wanted to go into Austria and created provocations.”

In a telephone interview with Shalom Toronto from his office in Ottawa, CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel reported that ” the Canadian Consulate is monitoring the situation carefully day by day.  For the moment there is no evidence of any acute situation and they are prepared to intervene (if necessary).”

While CIJA, along with the Western nations has denounced the Russian invasion of Crimea,  Fogel says he believes there is no fear of anti-Semitism right now, according to  reliable “on the ground” sources.  “As stressful as  the situation is, there is nothing against the Jews in all this.   There are Jews on both sides – in the Crimea for Russia and central to the uprising against them.  Jews  under special assault is not supported by the evidence. ”

Furthermore, “Ukrainian leaders understand that the fate of the Jews during this particular period is an important litmus test for their general comportment and orientation.”

A meeting was held last week between Israel’s ambassador in Kiev, Reuven Din El and Dmitry Yarosh the leader of the Right Sector paramilitary group, an ultranationalist Ukrainian movement which participated in the overthrow of the government of President Viktor Yanukovych   They agreed to work together “to prevent provocations”.  The embassy wrote on its website:  “Dmitry Yarosh stressed that Right Sector will oppose all (racist) phenomena, especially anti-Semitism, with all legitimate means.”

Historically, in times of political instability in the Ukraine hostilities against Jews were rampant and successive governments condoned or ignored them.  That fact shadows the present, creating unease at what the future will bring to the Jews of the Ukraine in these tumultuous times.

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