While much of Israel and world Jewry’s attention regarding anti-Semitism today is focused on increased Islamic vitriol and its concomitant violence in Western Europe, the use of Jewish themes in political discourse and the continuing debate over the singularity of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe still demands our concern.
Last week saw the two opponents in Poland’s presidential elections spar over their countrymen’s role in aiding and abetting the murder of their Jewish neighbors during the German occupation, with the opposition candidate excoriating the incumbent for attempting “to destroy Poland’s good name” by admitting any degree of culpability.
Despite this, however, scholars largely agree that the former eastern bloc nation has for the most part faced up to its wartime legacy honestly and with integrity. There is progress still to be made in Poland, but the Poles have come a long way.
Things seem to have improved for Ukraine’s Jews since the end of the Cold War as well, with a renaissance of Jewish communal life, firm government opposition to anti-Semitism, and a number of highly placed members of the tribe in Kiev’s post-Maidan administration.
The anti-Semitic Svoboda Party, once the protagonist in one of Ukraine’s biggest political success stories, has collapsed over the past year as well.
However, Ukraine does not appear to have faced up to its history quite as bravely as Poland. While President Petro Poroshenko last week signed into law a bill banning Nazi symbols, he was also signatory to a law granting official recognition to a Ukrainian nationalist faction that at one time collaborated with the Nazis.
According to the bill, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, an ultra-nationalist faction that sought to establish an independent Ukrainian state, would be eligible for official government commemoration. While the group, an offshoot of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, engaged in warfare against both the Soviet Union and the Nazis, it also collaborated with Germany and took part in actions against local Jews.
This isn’t the first time the wartime Ukrainian nationalist movement, led by Stepan Bandera, has been controversial.
In 2010 president Viktor Yushchenko declared Bandera a hero of Ukraine in a decision that was subsequently rescinded by his successor, Viktor Yanukovych, a year later.
The issue of Nazism has been central to the recent Ukrainian-Russian conflict, with Moscow accusing the administration in Kiev of neo-Nazi and fascist tendencies.
Ukraine’s position, equating Nazism and Communism as equally evil, must be seen against the backdrop of the Holodomor, a massive famine brought about by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s forced collectivization of farms that killed millions of Ukrainians from 1923-33 and which is generally viewed in the country as his planned genocide.
However, Ukraine’s views must also been seen against the backdrop of similar narratives in Hungary and the Baltics, where the moral equivalency between the two great 20th century European tyrannies is taken for granted.
“This is particularly important, because if communism and communist crimes can be categorized as genocide, then Jews committed genocide, because among the communist criminals were Jews and if that is the case then that would delegitimize the Jewish criticism of the participation of local collaborators in the Nazi genocide of the Holocaust,” explained Nazi hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff.
“In addition,” he continued, “many of the heroes of these new democracies are individuals who fought against communism, but during the Holocaust murdered their fellow Jewish citizens, which should in theory disqualify them from being heroes of the new democracies.”
Both Hungary and Lithuania have passed laws making it illegal to deny communist crimes or the Holocaust, Zuroff added.
Such legislation has the effect of rewriting history.
This revisionist effort was codified in the Prague Declaration of 2008, signed by a number of Eastern European states, which demanded that European textbooks be reworked to promote their narrative and to establish a day of mourning to commemorate all of the victims of totalitarian regimes.
The Jewish community of Hungary was engaged in a yearlong dispute with its government in 2014 and accused the administration of Victor Orban of using state Holocaust commemorations to whitewash the Hungarians’ role.
Interestingly, while Moscow has been one of the staunchest critics of Holocaust revisionism and anti-Semitism among its former subjects, Russia has also been one of the worst offenders when it comes to using anti-Semitism as a political tool.
President Vladimir Putin invoked the specter of anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism in justifying his annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year, accusing the post-revolutionary government of being a fascist junta that posed a danger to Jews and other minorities. Russian media have regularly used accusations of Jewish heritage to tar Ukrainian politicians.
There have also been accusations in the media that Putin has provided support for anti-Semitic parties such as France’s National Front and Hungary’s Jobbik and in March St. Petersburg hosted an international convention of far-right activists, including Holocaust deniers and white supremacists.
“They link the Holocaust to political issues,” Zuroff said of Russia, saying Moscow has done little to atone for communist crimes. “Russia does not come with clean hands.”
While it is certainly an improvement to see Ukraine and Russian using anti-Semitism as an insult in their propaganda, rather than fomenting Jew hatred for political gains, it is still dangerous.
Overall, despite a very low level of anti-Semitic violence in the countries of the former Soviet Union, the refusal to acknowledge past crimes and the willingness to use Jews and the Holocaust as political tools indicates that the old fashioned anti-Semitism that led to locals’ collaboration with the Nazis still simmers under the surface.