KIEV – I’m standing in Kiev’s Town Hall on Wednesday, down the street from the
city’s Maidan (“Independence”) Square, the site of massive protests by hundreds
of thousands of Ukrainians dissatisfied with their country’s leadership and
economic ties with Russia.
The square, and nearby state buildings,
occupied by citizens incensed by President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to spurn
an EU trade deal and move Ukraine further into Russia’s orbit, are a teeming
campground of tents, banners, lean-tos and makeshift soup kitchens exhibiting,
at first blush, an almost festival atmosphere.
It is only after one
notices the small army of protesters breaking up ice and piling up snow, to add
to growing barricades, that one realizes that Maidan has been a
On Tuesday night, riot police flooded roads to the square
and moved slowly into the main camp, bulldozing tents and barricades with
tractors mounted with shovels.
The police tried to storm city hall, but
protester pushed them back, wielding high pressure fire hoses from the
structure’s upper floors.
Wandering through the building several hours
after the fight, having come straight from the airport, I notice helmeted men,
some wearing camouflage pants tucked into military style boots, putting away the
hoses as protesters stream into the building.
In the main hall,
representatives of the various opposition factions have hung banners from the
gallery. Volunteers hand out flags and solicit donations for their
An old woman sitting at a desk surrounds herself with items
bearing the logo of Svoboda, an ultra-nationalist faction that the local Jewish
community and the World Jewish Congress consider neo-Nazi.
sleeping on floor mats fill much of the hall, many with gas masks and helmets by
their side. Off to the side, several makeshift clinics distribute medicine and
stand ready to administer first aid to the wounded.
One young man, a
linguist by trade, tells me that despite the fears of many in Ukraine’s Jewish
community, there is no real danger of an outbreak of anti-Semitism, even with
the active participation of Svoboda in the protests.
“I’ve been teased
and called a Jew by friends for standing up against anti-Semitism, and I support
Svoboda here,” he tells The Jerusalem Post. Svoboda and the other opposition
groups, he says, must be supported as an alternative to a leadership that many
Ukrainians see as inept and corrupt.
Still, it is chilling to be so close
to so many members of the party.
At the end of the day, however, the
protests are a force of their own, one that the opposition leaders can only try
Speaking with the Post, Eduard Dolinsky, director of the
Ukrainian Jewish Committee, says that while he does not know of any attacks
against Jews, there is a general feeling of anxiety on the part of the
Protesters affiliated with Svoboda, he says, have led chants,
originally used by Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, calling for the death of
“enemies” of Ukraine.
However, Igor, a Ukrainian expat who returned home
from Germany to join the protests, disagrees with Dolinsky.
a banner urging Yanukovich to resign in favor of an interim government pending
early elections, Igor tells me that many people chant the slogans without
understanding what they mean.
This, Dolinsky argues, is
While there are no indications that anti-Semitism has
become a part of the protesters’ discourse, local websites have begun tallying
which Jewish figures are on their side and which support Yanukovich, a Jewish
shopkeeper tells the Post.
Fear that the anger of the crowds could turn
against the Jews is ever present among members of the tribe in Kiev, prompting
the Ukrainian Jewish Committee to turn to its American counterparts for
“We have turned to the American Jewish Committee and the [American
Jewish] Joint [Distribution Committee] to formulate emergency plans,” Dolinsky
says. “We don’t have any in place.”
As for me, I plan on spending much of
the night in the square.
Disclosure: This reporter was a guest of the Kiev Jewish community. Reuters contributed to this report.