Does Ukraine have an anti-Semitism problem?

Ukraine had one of the lowest levels of reported anti-Semitism incidents in Europe – just 13 cases l

Right-wing Party Svoboda did not win any seats in Ukraine's new parliament [AP]

You don’t need to remind Ukrainian Jews of their long history of oppression at the hands of local authorities. In light of the past, how is the remaining 100,000-strong Jewish community faring in newly independent Ukraine, particularly in the wake of recent Maidan protests, renewed nationalism and war with separatists in the east? When it comes to such questions, views can be somewhat nuanced.

To be sure, right-wing and anti-Semitic political parties, such as Svoboda, are a concern in current day Ukraine. If recent trends are any indication, however, anti-Semitic sentiment doesn’t seem to be resonating much with Ukrainians. Indeed, Svoboda failed to attain the 5 percent threshold necessary to pick up seats in Ukraine’s recent parliamentary election. Observers say the election was the first in which no political party played on anti-Semitism. Buoyed by such developments, Jewish leaders feel encouraged and hope Ukraine will continue along a tolerant path.

Josef Zissels, General Council Chairman of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, believes that the threat of anti-Semitism has been greatly exaggerated. Zissel’s office is located in Kiev’s Podil neighbourhood, a former trading and Jewish quarter. To be sure, he concedes, there’s some anti-Semitic sentiment at the lowest rungs of society, “but in the mainstream and the top there’s no place for this type of thing”. 

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“Compared to 2013, Zissels remarks, there’s been no increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents this year.  For that matter, he adds, Ukraine displayed one of the lowest levels of anti-Semitism throughout Europe in 2013, with just 13 incidents.  

In contrast, Zissels remarks, the U.S. had several hundred such incidents.  “We have more reason to worry about the U.S. than the U.S. worrying about us,” he declares.”

Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on the European far-right and a research fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, echoes such views. In an interview, he expressed doubt that right wing nationalists would be successful in electoral terms. Moreover, he adds, “I’m sceptical that Ukrainians would ever rally to a programme aimed at ethnic cleansing’ or the like.”

To be sure, he says, “it’s sometimes very difficult to distinguish between civic and ethnic nationalism.” 

Shekhovtsov is under the impression, however, “that in general nationalism tends to take on a patriotic rather than a xenophobic character” in Ukraine.

Legacy of Maidan

Around Maidan, the square at the epicentre of earlier protests against the government of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian flags flutter outside buildings and stores hock folkloric clothing. What is the place of Jews in modern day Ukraine, a country which has seen a recent surge in patriotic sentiment?

“Though the EuroMaidan was oftentimes depicted in dark and ultra-nationalist colours,” Shekhovtsov says, “the movement has spurred the growth of a civic nation. The myth of the ‘heavenly hundred’ has helped to contribute and consolidate such civic-mindedness and constitutional patriotism.”

Shekhovtsov is referring to the 100 or so martyrs at Maidan who were shot and killed by riot police. Ukrainians died there, but also Russians, Poles, Georgians, Armenians and even a few Jews.

Back in Podil, Zissels pours cold water on the notion that Maidan represented some kind of backward or retrograde nationalism.

“No, no, no,” he says, shaking his head. If anything, he remarks, the 2004 Orange Revolution, which also flared in Kiev’s Maidan, was more nationalistic than recent protests against Yanukovych. Moreover, few members of ethnic minorities took part in the previous Maidan, in contrast to more current demonstrations.

“During [the recent] Maidan,” Zissels declares, “We Jews and other ethnic minorities did not feel threatened by what was happening.”

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Zissels certainly concedes that right-wing nationalists were visible in the recent Maidan. However, he says, “they don’t play a major role…and they aren’t very numerically strong”.

In fact, when Yanukovych authorities tried to disperse protesters on Maidan, people formed self-defence units (including a “Jewish Division”), which had no links to right-wing nationalists. At the end of January, 2014 Zissels estimates that such self-defense units comprised some 15,000 people. At the time, nationalists affiliated with Svoboda had just several hundred people under its banner. 

Denis Pilash, a political activist who took part in Maidan protests, says “demonstrators were playing all kinds of bad nationalistic music on stage.” On the other hand, he adds, “there was also a Jewish klezmer band and the majority of people were fine with that.”

Pilash adds that many Ukrainians “are eager to embrace Jews and other ethnic minorities.”

Nevertheless, he guards against complacency and fears the political mainstream hasn’t been sufficiently critical of the far right. Indeed, stereotypes and jokes about Jews persist, and “there’s always a certain tolerance for the right which could lead to resurgence.” 

Ukrainian Jews and the war

In light of intensifying hostilities in the east against Russian-separatists, such fears might not be unfounded. Tetiana Bezruk, a researcher at the Congress of National Communities of Ukraine, is concerned about the rise of the fascistic Azov Battalion which battles separatists while brandishing symbols similar to those worn by Waffen SS units during World War II.

“The Azov Battalion is one of the biggest problems right now,” Bezruk remarks. “People are very respectful toward anyone who is currently fighting, and it doesn’t matter what your politics is.”

While many Ukrainian Jews are certainly aware of fascist military units, they are still keen to demonstrate their patriotism.

Pereyaslav, located some 60 miles south of Kiev, was once home to Yiddish literary legend Shalom Aleichem (1859-1916) and the stage and film musical “Fiddler on the Roof” was based on his stories. Iryna Kucherenko, director of the Shalom Aleichem museum, says the local Jewish community isn’t too concerned with right wing nationalism. Jewish women in Pereyaslav, she says, want to support the Ukrainian war effort by helping to provide soldiers with appropriate body armour. Kucherenko adds for good measure that a Jewish battalion recently deployed to the front. 

Perhaps, the war will serve to integrate Ukrainian Jews more fully into society. One local Jewish “oligarch”, Igor Kolomoisky, recently created volunteer battalions which took part in the war. Kolomoisky is the governor of Dnipropetrovsk no less, an important industrial area. In media and political circles, Kolomoisky is referred to as a power broker and his ethnic or religious identity is glossed over. 

While it would be premature at this point to declare the death of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, figures such as Kolomoisky have done much to change attitudes. Indeed, through his own patriotic endeavours, he has made it hard to question Jewish loyalty to the Ukrainian state. Nevertheless, Ukrainians should be careful not to fall into a lull or fail to call out fascists in the midst of war.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008). He recently conducted a research trip to Kiev.  For a full archive of his pieces dealing with Ukraine, click here