Svoboda supporters in Kiev's Maidan Square in December.
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
TBILISI, GEORGIA – The pro-Russian insurgency in Ukraine’s Donbass region is “our Gaza,” one Ukrainian Jewish leader told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, invoking the specter of the on-again, offagain conflict between Israel and Hamas to express his pessimism regarding the future of organized Jewish life in the east of his country.
Interviewed while representing his community at a state-sponsored event in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Josef Zissels of the Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine asserted that while synagogues and Jews still remain in the areas controlled by the rebels, “that doesn’t mean that it is going to go back to the same condition.”
The situation in Donbass is not comparable to the frozen conflicts in Russian-dominated Georgian territories such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where a lack of conflict allows for a modicum of stability, he explained.
“The conflict that is frozen in Abkhazia and elsewhere in Georgia… where Russia came in with its own soldiers, there is no war there. There are Jews there. Donbass is still hot and it’s going to stay that way for a very long time. It’s going to be just like Gaza, sometimes hot, sometimes cold,” Zissels said.
According to Russian media reports dating back to 2008, when Russia and Georgia fought a war over South Ossetia, there is only one Jew left in the regional capital of Tskhinval.
Efforts by one of Tbilisi’s rabbis to track her down on behalf of the Post proved fruitless.
Many of those who left Donetsk, Luhansk and other rebel centers in Donbass for Israel “will never come back to Ukraine because in that particular area they will never have peace,” he said, again comparing the region to Gaza.
Many in the West fear that Russia hopes to create another frozen conflict in Donbass to exert pressure over Kiev to mitigate its turn toward Europe and the United States.
Zissels’ comment does not mark the first time that a figure from the Ukrainian Jewish community has likened the situation in Donbass to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post
from a displaced persons camp in Zhitomir several months ago, Chana Gopin, the wife the Chabad emissary in Luhansk, compared both sides of the conflict to Hamas, accusing both rebels and government forces of shelling civilian areas indiscriminately.
Earlier this week Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting several instances in which the Ukrainian army allegedly fired cluster munitions into civilian areas.
While nationalists and supporters of European integration are expected to do well in the Ukrainian parliamentary elections next Sunday, Zissels seemed sanguine about the neo-Nazi Svoboda party’s chances. Svoboda and similar groups have been cited by Moscow as proof that fascists and anti-Semites have taken over in Kiev.
Svoboda has “lost the support of the electorate,” Zissels stated, citing the party’s dismal performance in May’s presidential elections in which Svoboda presidential candidate Oleh Tyahnybok received 1.16 percent of the vote.
“Two years ago they got 10.5% [in parliamentary elections] and now they have a risk of not making it into Parliament,” he quipped.
According to a poll conducted by the Kyiv Post earlier this month, Svoboda is expected to surpass the 5% election threshold with 6.1% of the vote, down significantly from the 2012 election. A more recent poll conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives foundation and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, however, placed Svoboda’s support at merely 2.2%.
In recent years, Svoboda has undertaken “significant efforts to remove the extremist image,” but has continued making anti-Semitic statements, according Swedish academic Per Rudling, who studies extremism in Ukraine. However, the group has been especially careful to tone down its rhetoric since entering parliament, Zissels stated.
They “won’t even allow themselves to say anything anti-Semitic,” he said.
Svoboda supporters rioted outside of the parliament in Kiev earlier this month, following demands that the government honor the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a far-right militia that engaged in ethnic cleansing during World War II.
Pravy Sektor, another farright group, has also taken great pains to shed its anti-Semitic reputation, going so far as to protest in favor of IDF during Israel summer war in Gaza.