Ukrainian Jews split on dangers of protest movement

Local Jews fear presence of Svoboda party, whose leader has been called anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, may portend an ugly turn for country.

Kiev protests 370 (photo credit: Gleb Garanich/Reuters)
Kiev protests 370
(photo credit: Gleb Garanich/Reuters)
Ukrainian Jews are split in their perceptions of the potential dangers towards their community due to recent massive anti-government protests around the country.
Following a rebuff of the European Union last week, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians came out to protest against President Viktor Yanukovich’s turn towards Russia.
On Friday, under pressure from Moscow, Yanukovich dropped plans to sign a free trade pact with Brussels that would have integrated the post-Soviet nation much more firmly into the western bloc.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pushing Ukraine to join a Moscow-led customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, which he hopes to develop into a political and economic “Eurasian Union,” to match the might of the US and China.
Some local Jews have been worrying that the presence of Svoboda, one of the leading opposition factions and a significant presence in the street protests, may portend an ugly turn for the Ukraine.
Oleg Tyahnybok, the leader of Svoboda, which has been called an anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi party by the World Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations, is one of the four “emerging leaders” of the protests, according to The Financial Times.
According to FT, while many in the capital Kiev do not agree with Svoboda’s strident ultra-nationalism, the “highly disciplined party is providing important organizational support for the current protests” and opposition activists will tolerate the party if it assists in their goal of forcing Yanukovich to step down.
Not all protesters have tolerated Svoboda, however, with university students pushing a local party chief from a podium at a rally of some 20,000 in the western city of Lviv.
Svoboda protesters “took the Kyiv administration building,” Tyahnybok told protesters according to Radio Free Europe.
The Jerusalem Post was not able to independently verify his claim.
Party leader Oleg Tyagnibok has previously made the accusation that “Ukraine is being controlled by a Russian-Jewish mafia,” Irena Cantorovich, a scholar at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Kantor Database for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism, said earlier this year.
Rabbi Moshe Azman, a local Chabad emissary and one of several men claiming the title of Chief Rabbi, told Israeli news website Arutz Sheva that he had cancelled several public events for the commemoration of hanukka due to fears of violence by protesters.
After lighting the Menorah in the capital’s Central Synagogue, Azman “announced the cancellation of all the events and performances.”
He told Arutz Sheva this was due to fears that “groups of hooligans” would act against Jewish targets under the cover of the protests.
Azman specifically cited Svoboda as a factor that could drive the protests out of hand, however, not everybody agreed with him.
Rabbi Jonathan Markovitch, of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Kiev who is also a Chabad hasid, told the Post that there is no connection between the protests and the Jewish community, and that his community has continued to hold public events in connections with the holiday.
“We have been holding menorah lightings among the crowds of protesters,” he told the Post.
“We are following developments in Ukraine closely and remain in continual contact with our representatives on the ground and with local Jewish communities,” American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee spokesman Michael Geller told the Post on Monday.
“Our FSU Director Ofer Glanz has made it clear that we stand ready to provide needy members of the community with extra food, medicine or other forms of relief should the situation require it.”
A pig’s head was left on the doorstep of a synagogue being built in Sevastopol earlier this month, the Ukrainian city’s Jewish community said.
Several days ago it was reported that a Ukrainian website had uploaded a video game in which players can kill Jews and other “enemies” of the Ukraine.
Reuters and JTA contributed to this report.