Revolution unleashes new fears in Kiev

By Anshel Pfeffer, February 27, 2014
Activists reinforce the barricade last week (Photo: AP)

Activists reinforce the barricade last week (Photo: AP)

Ukraine’s Jews are torn over how to respond to a rise in antisemitic attacks and a victorious revolutionary force that has racists in its ranks.

The opposition groups that ousted the government last weekend included two openly antisemitic parties.

But while Jewish leaders recognise the need to speak out against antisemitism, many fear that whatever they say will be used by the Kremlin to smear the new pro-European leadership in Kiev.

In recent weeks there have been a number of attacks on Jewish targets in central Kiev, including at least three beatings of Jewish men and two acts of vandalism at synagogues.

On Monday, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the synagogue in Zaporozhe without causing any significant damage. No arrests have yet been made following any of these incidents and some have attributed them to ultra-nationalist groups such as the antisemitic Svoboda party and Pravy Sektor (“Right Sector”), which have played a prominent role in the violent demonstrations against the government of deposed president Viktor Yanukovich.

However, others in the community suspect that at least some of the attacks may have been carried out as part of a wider effort to portray the entire opposition as antisemitic.

The Kremlin, which supported Mr Yanukovich, has routinely described the former opposition in official statements and through the Russian media as “fascists” and “neo-Nazis”.

The dilemma of how to respond to the current situation has elicited different responses. Rabbi Reuven Azman, a Chabad rabbi in Kiev who claims to be chief rabbi of Ukraine (there are at least two other rabbis who use the title), last week called on Jews to “flee Kiev” and Ukraine and on Israel to send security personnel to guard Jewish institutions.

Vadim Rabinovich, the president of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress (at least four Jewish organisations claim to represent the country’s Jews) staked out a diametrically opposite position. In a statement, he said: “There are no massive outbursts or worsening of antisemitism in Ukraine”. He added that in his discussions with “the heads of groups that consider themselves radical”, he had been “assured that no manifestations of antisemitism have been or will be planned”.

“The best thing now is for the Jews in Ukraine not to take sides,” said a senior official in a Jewish organisation active in Ukraine. “There is a lot of antisemitism in this country but every government since independence has taken the issue of Jewish security very seriously and kept the antisemites at the margins. There is no sign of that changing now but we have to remain vigilant.”

Concern in the UK

The protection of Ukraine’s Jews has been raised with Foreign Secretary William Hague. Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer wrote to Mr Hague on Monday after being contacted by concerned constituents. “Antisemitic attacks have reportedly taken place,” wrote Mr Freer. Mr Hague said in Parliament that he planned to visit Kiev shortly and would raise human rights issues with leaders there.

Last updated: 1:05pm, February 27 2014