Jewish leaders in Ukraine, especially in the country’s contested east, are concerned over growing lawlessness and anarchy but are downplaying anti-Semitism, saying that their communities are not being specifically targeted.
Separatists in the Ukrainian provinces bordering Russia held plebiscites on independence Sunday.
Pro-Russian militias, allegedly with Russian backing, are currently occupying government buildings in several regional cities. These armed insurgents have already declared independence from the government in Kiev and engaged in a series of clashes with Ukrainian military forces sent to quell the mounting insurgency.
The ballots in the referendum held by the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk, which incorporates the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, asked only one question: “Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk People’s Republic?”
While there was no explicit mention of incorporation into Russia on the ballots, and supporters of secession were split between increased autonomy within Ukraine and a complete break, many separatist leaders have made public statements expressing their support for union with Moscow.
Moscow denied any role in the rebellion or any ambitions to absorb the mainly Russian-speaking east, an industrial hub, into the Russian Federation following its annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea after a referendum in March.
Despite a series of high-profile anti-Semitic incidents throughout the country since protesters first began agitating for the ouster of president Viktor Yanukovich, who was deposed in February, many Ukrainian Jewish leaders have been steadfast in their belief that such incidents are Russian provocations.
Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich has been widely quoted in the press for his linking of such incidents with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments on protecting Russian-speakers, Jews and ethnic minorities as the rationale for his annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea.
Last month’s shooting of Gennady Kernes, the Jewish mayor of Kharkiv, was likewise not tied by Jewish leaders to anti-Semitism. Kernes, initially a vocal supporter of Yanukovich and a proponent of increased eastern autonomy, later changed his position, backing Kiev to the hilt, alienating many on both sides of the conflict.
Flyers calling on Jews to register themselves with the separatists in Donetsk last month were widely accepted as forgeries by local Jews, many of whom termed them a “provocation,” although they were reluctant to ascribe responsibility.
Rabbi Pinchas Vyshetsky, one of the leaders of the city’s Chabad hassidic community, also called the flyers a provocation at the time and theorized that it could be the work of “anti-Semites looking to hitch a ride on the current situation.”
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Vyshetsky said that he did not see his community as being specifically targeted by any of the competing factions in Donetsk.
The problems facing the city’s Jews, he elaborated, are those facing the general population of the city, including a lack of governance and law enforcement.
“Nobody knows what will be in the morning,” he said, describing the situation in Donetsk as total anarchy.
“People are scared to go in the streets. Some people closed their shops. Life here is dangerous,” Vyshetsky said, adding that despite the problems facing the wider population of the city, including the Jews, all of the communal institutions are continuing to operate normally.
Vyshetsky said that he felt abandoned by the State of Israel.
While the American and Japanese embassies have called him to check on the community’s status, he has yet to hear from representatives of the Israeli government, he said.
During the initial stages of last year’s EuroMaidan protests in Kiev, which ultimately led to the overthrow of the country’s pro-Russian government, Jewish leaders exhorted their coreligionists to refrain from aligning the community with either side.
Vyshetsky said that Donetsk’s Jewish community is “not getting involved” with the conflict between pro-Kiev and pro-Moscow militants and that nobody can “identify the Jews with one direction or another.”
According to the Rabbi, 20,000 Jews live in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Shalom Gopin, a local rabbi in Luhansk, echoed Vyshetsky’s sentiments, telling the Post that “there is, in general, no anti-Semitism or problems but there is a lack of security.”
People are “nervous about war. There is vandalism. There are people going around with guns,” he said. However, Jewish institutions in his city are operating normally and the community has beefed up its security.
“We are not in the picture,” Gopin said.
Reuters contributed to this report.