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What the Crisis in Ukraine Means for Its 70,000 Jews


It may not be the most prominent question regarding Crimea’s counter-coup against the new Ukrainian government in Kiev and Russia’s limited invasion of the peninsula, but given the country’s history it is an unavoidable one: Is it good or bad for the Jews?

The response appears to depend upon whom you ask.

Vladimir Putin, at his surreal press conference Tuesday morning, alleged that he saw a swastika armband among the anti-Russian protesters in Kiev. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations suggested that “Russia had acted to thwart threats by ultranationalists, including anti-Semites, against Russians and Russian speakers inside Ukraine,” according to The New York Times.

But leaders of Ukraine’s own Jewish community have alleged that recent anti-Semitic provocations in the Crimea, including graffiti on a synagogue in Crimea’s capital that read “Death to the Zhids,” are the handiwork of pro-Russian Ukrainians. Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, who presides over Ukraine’s Jewish Federation, signed a letter asking Russia to end its aggression, and compared the current climate in Crimea to that of pre-Anschluss Austria. Of Russia’s warnings that there were anti-Semites among the Kiev protesters, the rabbi added, “The Russians are blowing this way, way out of proportion.”

There were fascists among the anti-Yanukovych protesters, noted historian Timothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books, and undoubtedly some of them are anti-Semites—in the not-too-distant past, anti-Semitism was inseparable from Ukrainian right-wing nationalism. But there were also Jews among the anti-Yanukovych protesters: “Young Jewish men formed their own combat group, or sotnia, to take the fight to the authorities,” Snyder reported. He also said that Ukraine's former pro-Russia government told riot police that Kiev’s rioters were Jews. “In other words,” Snyder observed of the Yanukovych regime before it was deposed, “the Ukrainian government is telling itself that its opponents are Jews and us that its opponents are Nazis"

What seems to be consistent is this: Both sides are using Ukraine’s Jewish community as a symbolic pawn, in which the credibility of the other side can be diminished by accusations of anti-Semitism. And that is remarkable. In a sense, it’s even laudatory. Babi Yar—in which, outside Kiev, over just two days Nazi Einsatzgruppen shot more than 33,000 Jews—was barely 70 years ago. 900,000 Ukrainian Jews, more than half the country’s pre-war Jewish population, were murdered in the Holocaust. This was in no small part because occupying Germans were able to secure the cooperation of homegrown anti-Semites, who had been carrying out pogroms in parts of their country that at the time were a designated region for Jews to settle in for decades preceding World War Two.

In the early years of the Soviet Union, Crimea was something of a haven for Jews. It was even briefly considered to be a workable location for a Jewish national homeland. It is now home to an estimated 17,000 Jews.

Assuming current anti-Semitism stays minor—even Ukraine’s Jewish leaders, the ones who blame Russia, have played the recent incidents down—there remains a good argument that it would be better for Ukraine’s Jews for Ukraine to retain its sovereignty and territorial integrity. If Ukraine is divided along ethnic lines, then ethnic minorities—most of all the Muslim-majority Tatars but also, potentially, Jews—could find themselves the odd peoples out. As Ronald Lauder, a prominent figure in the international Jewish philanthropic community, told The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake, “The future of East Central Europe depends on the maintenance of comity among diverse communities.”