On the ground: An eyewitness to antisemitism in Ukraine

"The manifestations of antisemitism in Ukraine are different from those we know from Western Europe or North America, where they are often portrayed as 'antizionist' or as part of BDS."

A woman walks past a swastika and the inscription "Death to Jews' painted on a wall in an underpass in Kiev May 29, 2012.  (photo credit: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS)
A woman walks past a swastika and the inscription "Death to Jews' painted on a wall in an underpass in Kiev May 29, 2012.
In a Jewish cemetery in the city of Kremenchuk, Ukraine, the desecrated grave of the daughter of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is apparently another testimony to the new antisemitism that is currently flourishing in the country. "I approach antisemitism on a daily basis," said Edward Dolinsky, a Ukrainian-born Jew and an expert on antisemitism.
"A statue is a symbol, it does not express a mood," said Ofer Kretzner, an Israeli businessman and consul of the Ukrainian government. "This is a provocation financed by Russians to show there could be a problem against the Jews. But there is no trend of antisemitism; There is appreciation for the Jewish people. There is not one leader here who hates Jews. Israeli businessmen come here and do not feel antisemitism. Perhaps there are one-off cases with alcoholics or drug addicts, but it does not mean anything."
The desecration of the grave was the most severe example of antisemitism in recent years. According to eyewitnesses, the structure of the tent was burned down, and the tombstone was smashed to pieces and scattered in the area. This is not the only proof of new antisemitism. Just last October there was a torch parade held in Kiev marking the 75th anniversary of the Ukrainian rebel army that massacred Jews during the Holocaust and turned Jews over to the Nazis, and such parades are not rare in the Ukrainian landscape.
"The manifestations of antisemitism in Ukraine are essentially different from those we know from Western Europe or North America, where they are often portrayed as 'anti-Zionist' or as part of the BDS movement," said Israel's ambassador to Ukraine, Eli Balotzarkovsky. "Antisemitic expressions in Ukraine are based primarily on the actions of thugs from low socio-economic strata, who find relief from their frustrations with the demolition of tombstones, graffiti and insults, a phenomenon that is well known, rooted but still marginal. Recent events are rooted in the rise of the extreme right in the country, which expresses deep-rooted antisemitism, either stemming from an ignorant belief in the negative role of the Jews or in an attempt to gain political capital from those sectors of the population that have given up on politicians and seek to improve their dire situation.
"However, there is certainly room to increase public awareness by including this specific issue in public discourse through the unequivocal condemnation of the attack by the heads of state," added Belukarkovsky. "We have recently heard such condemnation from President Petro Poroshenko, and we hope that this will lead to more awareness and unity through condemning this phenomenon. Enforcement plays an equally important role in the prevention of future events. There is a need to increase enforcement and bring to trial the perpetrators of the attacks."
"The number of antisemitic incidents increases every year throughout the world, but in Ukraine the numbers are unclear because of the system of government," said Yaakov Haguel, deputy director of the World Zionist Organization and head of the antisemitism department.
"There is fog, and it is difficult for us to analyze the event. We do not know everything because of the government's lack of cooperation in this area. From the Jewish point of view, there is an increase in the number of immigration certificates attesting to distress. Tourists also have noticed antisemitism. Last year there was a sign in a hotel: 'No entry for Jews.' It is important to say that there is an opposite trend. On one hand, certain groups praise the situation of the Jews, and on the other hand, there are those who claim everything is deteriorating."
Among other things, what affects the situation of the Jews in Ukraine today is the civil war that broke out in the country in early 2014, the rise of tensions with Russia and Russian annexation of the Crimea. "The Jews are scattered on both sides, in battle zones and in other areas," said Haguel.
"The fighting against Russia has provoked a lot of aggression in the country," said a Ukrainian parliamentarian. "The criticism is directed at the government, at the oligarchs and the Jews. The narrative that Jews are to blame for everything is dangerous and reminds us of Germany before World War II. We have to be careful that the situation does not deteriorate as it did in Germany."
Among other things, Ukraine bears the stain of the Holocaust, in which more than one million Jews who lived in the country on the eve of World War II were murdered, and tens of thousands of Ukrainians helped the Germans to execute them.
"Our president, Reuven Rivlin, came here to mark the 75th anniversary of the massacre at Babi Yar in September of 2016. He went to our parliament, spoke about Ukrainians who are righteous among the nations and recalled the citizens who took part in the execution of the Holocaust. The media went crazy. They said it was Russian propaganda and talked about severing relations and asked to expel the president. I am certain that it is more dangerous for a Jew with a skullcap to walk today on the streets of  Paris, Berlin or Brussels than the streets of Kiev," said Shimon Briman, a Jewish journalist and historian of Ukrainian origin.
"In September 2016 Ukraine marked the 75th anniversary of the tragedy of the Holocaust in Babi Yar, and I saw with my own eyes that for the modern Ukrainians, the tragedy of the Holocaust becomes part of their history and their pain. But there is also a dangerous, very alarming tendency. This is a unique phenomenon in the world, under the name: 'Love Jews - respect their persecutors.'"
Sympathy for Jews and Israel, the desire for peaceful relations and partnership with the Jewish community and the Jewish state are integrated into much of the Ukrainian national movement with the glorification of national leaders who collaborated with the Nazis and the Third Reich. Such glorification is supported by the state and causes pain to many Jews in Ukraine.
"The problem of modern Ukraine is the general weakness of the authorities and the forces of order," added Briman. "Therefore, the large number of incidents against Jews and vandalism against Jewish targets remain unpunished. On social media, accusations of Jews as the root of all the problems of Ukraine are heard without punishment. We must understand that dialogue between Ukrainians and Jews always exists with the attempts of a third party - Russia - to intervene in the Ukrainian-Jewish issue for propaganda against Ukraine."
"The subject of commemoration is not properly addressed in Ukraine," Ambassador Blotzarkovsky admitted. "There was certainly a positive attitude toward those Ukrainian citizens who saved Jews, including more than 2,500 righteous among the nations. However, there is room for serious and in-depth consideration of the issue of collaborators. President Poroshenko has apologized in the past for the crimes committed by those Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis and actively participated in the murder of Jews. However, beyond this there is no public discourse on the subject, and any attempt to raise such a discourse was rejected on the grounds that it is Russian propaganda. The process of glorification of individuals and organizations that fought against Russia is also carried out indiscriminately between elements acting out of ideological motives and those involved in war crimes, especially the extermination of Jews. Demonstrations are another expression of the existence of radical elements outside the political system. In this context, we are also witnessing the rise of elements identified with the extreme right. This is marginal, but at the same time requires significant attention by law enforcement agencies."
Dolinsky has also been concerned about the issue of commemoration.
"Recently, when they named a street after Bogdan Khmelnytsky, a known instigator of pogroms, we asked to change the name of the street to Golda Meir but they did not agree," he said. "Today, survivors of wars with Russia are being remembered as historical war heroes, most of whom supported the Holocaust. They made so much noise about the Polish Holocaust law, and here there is a much worse parallel Ukrainian law, according to which all the organizations that participated in the Holocaust were heroes, and it is forbidden to criticize these organizations. While the Poles are taking steps for the Jews, we do not have Holocaust museums or memorials. Babi Yar does not agree to set a memorial plaque for the murder of Jews. They say it's a tragedy for all, but that's a lie. 99% of those killed in Babi Yar were Jews. Even in Ukrainian schools there is very little about the Holocaust. Just recently there was a march in Lvov to mark the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the SS Division in Galicia. The parade was supported by the municipality. I buy vegetables in the market, and the seller says to me: 'The Jews are taking over everything. They're rich.' I drive in a taxi in Kiev, and the driver tells me: 'The Jews are taking over the state.'"
Those who gain from the conflict
There are those who also insist on presenting the other side. "The Jewish community in Ukraine is the fourth largest in the world," said Member of Parliament Georgiy Logvinsky, who is also the head of the Ukraine-Israel group.
"There are about 50 Jewish organizations and three synagogues, including the largest synagogue in the world, and we have a community center for Judaism - the largest in the world. There are 4-5 Jewish schools, a number of kosher certificates, ten flights a day from Israel to Ukraine. But every coin has two sides. When the Jews are immigrants, there is envy. The Jews are always to blame for the poor and undeveloped state. The danger is that as jealousy grows, so does antisemitism. And we did hear about people who sent antisemitic texts."
The fact that the current prime minister of Ukraine, Volodymyr Groisman, who has been in office since April 2016, is a Jew - an unprecedented phenomenon in the world, except in Israel of course - has raised hope for an improvement in the Jewish situation in the country. But there are those who claim that his declared Jewishness has caused an opposite effect. "The Jewish prime minister leads a discourse that the Jews control Ukraine," says Anna Zaharova, chairman of the Israel-Ukraine Association. It's easy to say that the Jews are guilty and get more votes. There are bodies that benefited from the conflict and from the antisemitism card. This July, we are holding a first conference on the Holocaust in Lvov, and this is a first step on the subject and very important. "