Ukrainian Rabbis come out against Russia

World leaders are scratching their heads in an effort to divine Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next move. How far will he go? Will he annex Crimea? Will he send his troops further into eastern Ukraine?

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Jewish leaders have made a brave joint decision to overcome their disunity and publicly support the new government in Kiev.

This support has come in a variety of ways. There have been open letters lambasting the Russian invasion of Crimea and the Kremlin’s incessant undermining of the pro-European government. Rabbis have spoken out, saying that recent acts of vandalism against synagogues could well have been the work of Russian provocateurs. In addition, oligarch Igor Kolomoyski, president of the Dnipropetrovsk community, has agreed to serve as emergency governor of his province on behalf of the government.

The Jewish community is taking a sizable risk here: Mr Putin is a dangerous enemy to have.

The elections in May could yet yield a different pro-Russian government, and what if there is another invasion further inland? They are also consciously downplaying the antisemitism that they, better than any outsiders, know exists within Ukrainian society and more worryingly, in some of the parties of the new coalition in Kiev.

But this is not simply a wager that Russia will not dare go further with its invasion and fail to topple the government. What they are saying is much braver and more important.

To Putin they are saying: we will no longer allow the Kremlin to use the antisemitism card as an excuse for its expansionist policies. The Jews do not need Russia’s protection.

To their own compatriots, they are saying, “Ukraine for the Ukrainians” cannot be a xenophobic rallying cry. For the country to preserve its unity and independence, all its groups, ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, Muslim Tatars and Jews, Moldovans, Magyars and all the rest, have to put aside their old prejudices and hatreds and treat each other as equal citizens.

It is a pivotal moment in Jewish history in a part of the world that has seen so many pogroms and blood-libels, and so much persecution of Jews. It could also be key in ensuring Ukraine’s freedom from Russian hegemony.

Meanwhile, Israel has kept out of the Crimean conflict. Last Wednesday, after pressure from the US administration, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s personal spokesman put out a statement calling for the crisis in Ukraine to be resolved by “peaceful” means. Neither Russia nor Crimea were mentioned in the statement. Nothing else has been heard on the matter from Israeli officials and nothing more will.

Israel’s main alliances may be with the West but it has kept a quiet channel open with the Kremlin since Mr Putin first came to power in 2000. Despite Russia’s continued support for Iran and Syria, not a word of open criticism has been heard from Jerusalem.

There are a number of reasons for this: the belief that Russia will limit its shipment of “strategic” weapons to the region (it has so far not supplied the S300 anti-aircraft system to Iran), the existence of intelligence co-operation in crucial areas, co-ordination on energy matters and concern for the large Jewish community there. Many prominent Ukrainians are waiting out the storm in neutral Tel Aviv, preferring for now the anonymity of its five-star hotels to their plush flats in London where they may face asset seizures and protests from Ukrainian expatriates.

Last updated: 10:45am, March 14 2014