From Kiev to Donetsk: Covering Ukraine’s journey from protests to civil war

Both nationalists and separatists pledge support and security to the Jewish community, but anti-Semitism is bubbling under the surface of each side and it is unclear where it will lead.

Ukrainians rally in support of EU integration at Independence Square in central Kiev in December. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ukrainians rally in support of EU integration at Independence Square in central Kiev in December.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As I furtively glanced at the Svoboda party activists bustling around me in the main hall of Kiev’s occupied municipality building last December, I couldn’t help the thought reverberating in my head – “I’m standing in a room full of neo-Nazis.”
Ukraine’s Jewish community is the third-largest in Europe, according to World Jewish Congress figures; and the disproportionate role that the far-right Svoboda party has played in the political conflict is perceived by many Jewish leaders as a potential trigger for anti-Semitism.
I had arrived in Kiev only hours after a pitched battle between Svoboda and riot police tasked with clearing the building, which opponents of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych had captured days earlier. The protesters, angry at Yanukovych for canceling an EU trade deal in a bid to move Ukraine further into Russia’s orbit, had set up a teeming campground of tents, banners, lean-tos and makeshift soup kitchens in the capital’s Maidan Square.
The protest camp, dubbed the Euro- Maidan, became the center of a conflict between a political class widely seen as corrupt, and citizens fed up with post-Soviet crony-capitalism and outsized Russian influence. Those who took to the streets exemplified the zeitgeist of western Ukraine, especially the desire to integrate into the European community, as opposed to that of the East – Yanukovych’s primary constituency – and a region with deep cultural and linguistic ties to Russia.
As I stood in the municipality, staring up at large Svoboda banners and surrounded by helmeted men rolling up the firehoses that had been used only hours before to defend the building against government forces, it certainly seemed possible that the conflict could spill over into anti-Semitic violence.
At the time, several leading Jewish figures in Ukraine and abroad expressed their concerns over the prominent role that the ultra-nationalist party was playing in the protests.
According to party leader Oleg Tyagnibok, the country “is being controlled by a Russian-Jewish mafia.”
Eduard Dolinsky, the director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, said that protesters affiliated with Svoboda led chants, originally used by Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, calling for the death of Ukraine’s “enemies.”
LOCAL JEWISH leaders were initially split on the dangers of the protest movement.
Moshe Azman, a local rabbi, told the press that he had canceled all communal activities scheduled to take place in his synagogue near the square. However, Jonathan Markovitch, another rabbi, disagreed with Azman, asserting that there was no connection between the protests and the Jewish community, and that his community continued to hold public events in connection with Hanukka.
“We have been holding menorah lightings among the crowds of protesters,” he said.
The protesters, busy building barricades, distributing food and preparing to defend the square, seemed largely uninterested in the Jews.
Jewish communities across the spectrum appealed for their members to remain aloof from the conflict, which by the end descended into urban warfare as gunfire, Molotov cocktails and burning tires turned the Maidan into an approximation of hell.
That, however, was after I had already left.
Members of the tribe who spoke with me during the early stages of the conflict told a tale of Jews fighting on both sides of the barricades.
Alexandra Oleynikova, a young Jewish activist, told The Jerusalem Post that while some Jews stayed away out of fear, others had flocked to Maidan.
These Jewish protesters, she said, “stand there nights and days; they really live there now and they help people who come to find accommodations. They bring food and they collect money.”
Some young Ukrainian Jews who work for international organizations were “really active” in offering support as well as “organizing the barricades,” Oleynikova said.
On November 30, when government forces staged a massive push against the barricades, attacking and beating protesters, she said, “my friends were on the front lines of the fighting against the troops.”
During my time in the square, I saw a swastika scrawled on a street corner, but no other overt expressions of anti-Semitism.
YANUKOVYCH’S AND his Russian backers’ use of accusations of anti-Semitism to paint their opponents as fascists and racists was probably responsible for this show of restraint in a country where there is very little anti-Jewish violence but a deep-rooted anti-Semitic tradition.
During the protests, members of the far Right – including Pravy Sektor, a militant group that helped organize the defense of the Maidan – went out of their way to distance themselves from anti-Semitism. In fact, members of the group went so far as to honor Alexander Scherbanyuk, a Jewish man killed in the clashes.
He was one of three Jews who died during the clashes, which by February had left 100 Ukrainians dead and prompted Yanukovych to flee to Russia.
Scherbanyuk’s burial was accompanied by masked militants firing handguns into the air in a military salute.
A representative of Pravy Sektor was also photographed helping to paint over a swastika daubed onto a wall following the months-long protest.
Contrary to the fears of many, the toppling of Yanukovych and subsequent elections did not lead to a massive surge in popularity for the far Right – possibly, some speculated, because the goal for which the Right had struggled had largely been secured.
Despite the absence of overt anti-Semitism in the streets, however, a series of attacks on Jews in Kiev and throughout the country, including beatings, a stabbing and an arson attack on a synagogue, put Jews on edge.
Still, according to a number of Jewish leaders, especially American-born Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, the violence is less a reflection of the Ukrainians than a sign of the lengths to which Russia will go to discredit the new ruling “junta” in Kiev.
Bleich has been highly critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who justified his annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, following Yanukovych’s expulsion, as necessary to defend the Jews, among others.
During a press conference in Moscow on March 3, Putin warned against the “rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.”
This led to a war of words between Bleich and Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, who has himself criticized Ukrainian Jewish leaders for protesting Putin’s words.
According to Bleich, Russia has provoked anti-Semitism in his country.
Joseph Zissels, the head of the Vaad of Ukraine – one of several representative bodies in the country – said the Russians “are cynically willing to play the Jewish card in the implementation of their objectives, and are therefore [shown to be] willing to sacrifice Jews.”
Indeed, Jews across the country who have spoken with the Post have all agreed that while they don’t see the conflict as one involving the Jewish community, the willingness of both sides to use anti-Semitism as a brush to tar their opponents may have the unintended consequence of stirring up hate against the Jews.
AFTER THE Maidan conflict and the annexation of Crimea, a new conflict sprung up, with separatists – widely seen as being Russian-backed – taking over government buildings in several eastern cities. The separatists, who declared a People’s Republic centered on the city of Donetsk, have entered into clashes with the Ukrainian army and turned what was a political, albeit violent, battle into a budding civil war.
Flyers calling on Jews to register with the separatist government in Donetsk made international headlines, but both the rebels and Jewish leaders denied their legitimacy.
Rabbi Pinchas Vyshetsky, a local communal leader, called the flyers a provocation and theorized that they could be the work of “anti-Semites looking to hitch a ride on the current situation.”
If the rebels were responsible, he added, it flew in the face of “everything they did until now.”
Some have speculated that the flyers were an effort by Ukrainian nationalists, or even the government, to emulate the delegitimization tactics ascribed to the Russians.
In Odessa, a center of Jewish life in western Ukraine, separatists also tried to secede, but met with fierce opposition from local residents.
Following a clash in May during which dozens of separatists were burned to death in a building they had occupied in the city, several communal leaders told the Post that they had plans in place to evacuate local children and anyone else who wished to leave in the event of further violence.
“When there is shooting in the streets, the first plan is to take [the children] out of the center of the city,” said Rabbi Rafael Kruskal, the head of the Tikva organization, which runs a network of orphanages and schools and provides social services to the city’s elderly. “If it gets worse, then we’ll take them out of the city. We have plans to take them both [children and the elderly] out of the city and even to a different country if necessary – plans which we prefer not to talk about, which we have in place.”
The Chabad hassidic community was also prepared for evacuation, local emissary Rabbi Avraham Wolf said at the time. While the situation had not deteriorated to the point where an evacuation was necessary, he told the Post, “we have a number of plans.”
Following these statements, the media, especially in Russia, played up the story, claiming that all of the city’s 30,000 Jews were on the verge of evacuation – leading Chabad and other organizations to deny the existence of any such plans.
The main problem facing the Jewish community now is less anti-Semitism than fiscal collapse, a number of leaders have told the Post. Ongoing economic problems, exacerbated by recent political instability, have severely impacted the financial health of Jewish institutions throughout Ukraine.
“The middle class has almost disappeared, and that’s where we got most of the money from locally,” said Bleich, who is also the president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine. “We lost most of our local donors.”
The problems started, he explained, with the collapse of the global economy, and worsened with the election of Yanukovych. His rule, Bleich said, hit Jewish businesses hard.
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, confirmed that he had “met with a number of businessmen who are leaders of the Jewish community, and they can’t provide those funds anymore.”
SEVERAL WEEKS ago, I returned to Ukraine, this time to the east, to check on the well-being of the Jews living in the separatist-controlled People’s Republic of Donetsk.
In government-controlled Kharkov, 280 km. north of Donetsk, Chabad Rabbi Moshe Moskoivitz agreed with Bleich that the conflict had weakened the national economy, hitting local Jews and communal institutions hard.
One of the complaints of the community, he told me, was the lack of an “organized response from the [international] Jewish community.”
While the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee have been funneling money into the country, there is still a lack of response from world Jewry, Moskoivitz explained.
“I think there is a big gap in communication,” he said.
In my hotel room in Kharkov after my meeting with the rabbi, I pondered the best way to enter Donetsk the next morning.
The airport had been taken over by separatists several days earlier, and the Ukrainian army was in the midst of an operation to recapture the fields, making flying an impractical option, to say the least.
The trains were still running, but a woman had been shot at the Donetsk station the day before. From the safety of my hotel room, I stared, horrified, at a picture that someone had uploaded to Twitter showing her sheet-draped body on the sidewalk.
In the end, I booked a train ticket and hoped that I wouldn’t have to field-test my bulletproof vest.
Getting off the train in the occupied city, I was confronted with an unremarkable scene. There were no gunmen in sight, and the train station appeared to be humming along, the crowds unhurried and relaxed.
Driving through the streets, my guide, who met me at the station, pointed out the city’s many barricades, manned by rebels armed with everything from modern Kalashnikovs to old shotguns. As I snapped pictures at one checkpoint, a young separatist yelled out, but our car quickly sped by to avoid a confrontation.
Donetsk’s 11,000 Jews have reacted to the conflict in the same way that many of their gentile countrymen have: by hunkering down and hoping to avoid the worst of the violence.
Some, like Yaakov Virin, a bearded hassidic man and the editor of Donetsk’s Jewish newspaper, are wary, fearing that eventually patriotism and nationalism may turn into anti-Jewish incitement.
“It’s a tradition that the Jews are always guilty for all of our problems,” he said.
MANY OF Donetsk’s malls and shopping centers are closed, and although I saw businesses open and people walking in the streets, the city was certainly nowhere near as vibrant as one would expect from such a large population center.
Speaking with the Post at his office in the city’s synagogue, only 25 km. from the airport – where running gun battles had left dozens dead not too long before I arrived – Israeli-born Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski said the Jewish community was still functioning, although it was facing economic hardships due to the instability.
Some 60 men come to three different prayer services every morning despite the violence, and Torah classes still take place in the evenings. The synagogue and the nearby Jewish community center have been getting smaller crowds at night due to issues with public transportation during those hours, but Jewish life has not stopped.
At the community center, the director of cultural programs, Olga Pypenko, said hundreds of people were still coming to take part in classes and activities, and between 25 and 30 families with small children were expected to take part in a communal Shabbat that week, when I visited at the end of May.
“No fewer people are coming since the violence started,” she said.
The local school had been closed for the past several days, Vishedski said, and when it reopened initially, only 30 out of a total of 150 pupils attended.
He sent his own daughter to class, but might have kept her at home if he hadn’t wanted to set an example for his congregants, he added.
All of the communal institutions here are protected by guards wearing camouflage fatigues and bulletproof vests.
They are not armed.
“There is fear among those in the city, and the Jews are part of the [broader] community,” Vishedski said. “The Jewish community isn’t the story.”
There are 500 Jewish families here who receive food aid, he said, and it is likely this number will rise as the city continues to suffer from armed conflict.
An increasing number of Jews from Donetsk, as in other cities, have expressed interest in aliya, and the number of inquiries to the Jewish Agency has been on the rise.
However, a mass exodus does not appear to be in the cards.
WHILE THE Israeli government has stated that it intends to put significant resources into luring Ukrainian Jews to Israel, including a NIS 15,000 grant to families fleeing conflict zones, Bleich has doubts about the viability of the Israeli plan.
Citing Jewish Agency figures boasting a 150-percent rise in aliya from Ukraine since the country began experiencing Russian intervention and instability, the chief rabbi asked why such incentives were necessary if aliya was increasing.
“Over the last 25 years, the largest component of aliya from any single country has been from Ukraine, more than Russia, even. I really think that a lot of people who really want to make aliya made aliya already,” Bleich said.
“I think the people who want to make aliya now are going to make aliya. I don’t know if these incentives are going to work, because if people want to leave, they’re going to leave. If people don’t want to leave, they have a reason why they don’t want to leave, and usually it’s not financial.”
Speaking with the Post in Kharkov, Oleksandr Feldman, a Jewish MP and the founder of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, stated that while “there is strong domestic anti-Semitism, the government is trying to fight it.”
“Thank God we did not have any anti- Jewish events in Kharkov,” he added.
“This is partially because I managed to place security in the institutions where Jews are present.”
According to Feldman, the “Jews are very numerous on both sides of this conflict,” but the official position of the Jewish community is to remain neutral and above the fray.
However, he asserted, this neutrality does not translate into passivity.
“We have asked Israel, and we said that we would be ready to be taught...
how to protect ourselves, how to organize our protection,” he said, reiterating a longstanding request that Israel involve itself on some level with defending the Jews of Ukraine. ■ The writer was a guest of Oleksandr Feldman.