Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in PR war over protests
Charges of anti-Semitism are a hot weapon in Ukraine’s current political crisis, but the evidence of anti-Semitic words and deeds within the government or the anti-government EuroMaidan protest movement remains thin.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara spoke at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 2 of “extremist groups who wear some logos and emblems that look like Nazi-style emblems,” while his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, decried protesters who use “racist and anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans.”
Neither gave details. In a Jan. 13 article in the Huffington Post, Oleksandr Feldman, a member of parliament with the pro-presidential Party of Regions, said the protests had degenerated into “ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism.” He called for opposition leaders Arseniy Yatseniuk and Vitali Klitschko to distance themselves from fellow opposition leader Oleh Tiahnybok of the nationalist Svoboda Party, which has been accused of anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, Jewish groups denounced images on a purportedly pro-government Facebook page representing riot control police, which portrayed opposition leaders as working in league with Jews and superimposing the Nazi swastika over the Star of David. The Interior Ministry called the Facebook page a fake.
A group of 41 researchers said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine capitalizes on uninformed reporting.
“The more alarmist statements on the EuroMaidan are likely to be used by the Kremlin’s ‘political technologists’ for the implementation of Putin’s geopolitical projects,” the researchers on Ukrainian nationalism said in a joint statement. “By providing rhetorical ammunition for Moscow’s battle against Ukrainian independence, such alarmism unintentionally helps a political force which is a far more serious threat to social justice, minority rights and political equality than all Ukrainian ethno-centrists taken together.”
Four groups, including the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, said they have seen no upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks. “We call on Ukrainian citizens and foreign observers to remain calm and critically assess the panic-mongering statements in the media regarding anti-Semitism in the country,” the groups said in a statement on the website of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.
Two attacks on Jews near the Rosenberg Synagogue in Kyiv on Jan. 11 and Jan. 18 have provided ammunition for both sides, with government supporters saying they were the work of right-wing forces allied with the opposition. EuroMaidan backers claim a government provocation.
Yaakov Bleich, Ukraine’s chief rabbi, said neither version could be proven. He blames a broader breakdown of law and order as the anti-government protests enter their 79th day on Feb. 7.
“I will not accept people who say it’s EuroMaidan, and I will not accept those who say it’s the government,” Bleich said. “On the fringes of anarchy and lawlessness, people are getting away with things.”
However, in response to the incidents, Kyiv’s Jewish community has beefed up security at synagogues and schools, he said.
Svoboda’s role in the protests has also fueled debate.
Party leader Tiahnybok was expelled from the Our Ukraine parliamentary faction in 2004, after a speech that included a denunciation of the “Moscow-Jewish mafia” ruling Ukraine. Svoboda, however, says it’s pro-Ukrainian, not anti-Semitic.
“Svoboda is an enigma in many ways,” Bleich said, calling it “a right-wing, nationalist party with anti-Semitic elements in it.”
Tiahnybok made his speech at the gravesite of a commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose leader, Stepan Bandera, remains a divisive figure in Ukrainian history.
While many Ukrainians consider him a hero, he remains vilified by others as a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite. Just before leaving office in 2010, President Viktor Yushchenko posthumously honored Bandera as a Hero of Ukraine, an award rescinded by court order the next year. Photos of the iconic Bandera and symbols of his organization are visible among protesters.
Extremism is “over represented in visual images of Maidan,” Andreas Umland, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said, adding that the identity of violent protesters isn’t clear.
Bleich called on opposition leaders to speak out against anti-Semitic incidents, including a torchlight parade and a New Year’s Eve skit on Independence Square that featured a Svoboda Party member of parliament playing a caricature of a Jew who changes sides in the political debate to protect his financial interests.
Bleich said he’s met with opposition leaders Klitschko and Yatseniuk to express his concern. He called on all Ukrainians to combat anti-Semitism where it appears. “How to address it is not only a Jewish question, but a question for the Ukrainian people,” he said.