Reports of anti-Semitism in Odessa highlights use of Jews in wartime propaganda

One communal representative says he believes both sides in the current Ukrainian-Russian conflict are making use of Ukrainian Jewry to disparage their opponents.

Jewish men at a synagogue in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish men at a synagogue in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Despite media reports, there has been no surge of anti-Semitic attacks in Odessa, local Jewish leaders say.
Reports in Pravda, Izvestia and other Russian news outlets last week painted a picture of an Ukrainian Jewish community terrorized by members of the ultra-nationalist Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) movement.
According to Izvestia, Pravy Sektor “declared war” on the community, beating 20 Jews and prompting local leaders to appeal to the World Jewish Congress to “disarm and disband” the group.
“Pravy Sektor is just destroying us, it is pure militant Nazism,” Mikhail Maiman, referred to as the leader of Odessa’s Jewish community, was quoted as saying.
World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer said, however, that no such appeal was received and he had heard nothing about such attacks during a visit to Kiev before Succot.
Communal leaders denied any knowledge of Maiman and of such violence. The ersatz headman “is not in any of the community’s databases and it seeks likely that he doesn’t exist,” Chabad spokesman Berl Kapulkin wrote in a statement on his community’s website.
“People are worried [about us],” Chabad emissary Rabbi Avrohom Wolf said in a telephone interview on Sunday.
“We received hundreds of emails and calls. We clarified what happened and there were no anti-Semitic incidents.”
According to the rabbi and other communal figures, there “has been no rise in anti-Semitism.”
Rabbi Rafael Kruskal, who heads a parallel Jewish communal organization in Odessa, agreed with Wolf, saying that he was unaware of any rise in anti-Semitism in the city “since the beginning of the crisis here in Ukraine.”
There is no climate of fear in Odessa, he asserted.
Regarding the reports in the Russian media, Kruskal said that he did not know where they originated and that he preferred not to comment on speculation that such stories were part of an ongoing propaganda war in which Moscow has tarred the post-revolutionary authorities in Kiev with the brush of fascism and anti-Semitism.
One communal representative, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he believed that both sides in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict were making use of Ukrainian Jewry to disparage their opponents.
“There is no question that from the beginning we became a tool,” the representative said. “Both sides are trying to say [they] are the protectors [of Jews].”
He added that Ukrainian authorities have expressed a commitment to combating anti-Semitism both for its own sake and because “they realize that any anti-Semitic attack could reflect badly on them.”
It is possible, he continued, that the low-key response among Jewish groups to the attempted firebombing of a Kiev synagogue in the hours before Rosh Hashana was due to the government security services requesting that they not make a fuss.
“They know they will play into the hands of the other side [if they make a fuss],” he said.
Ukrainian Jews have expressed various attitudes regarding Pravy Sektor, a group with roots in a number of movements, including some that are avowedly neo-Nazi, which has made strong efforts to distance itself from racism over the past year.
Members of the group formed an armed honor guard at the funeral Alexander Scherbanyuk, a Jewish man killed during the Maidan protests in Kiev in March, and demonstrated in favor of Israel’s war against Hamas alongside members of the Jewish community in Dnipropetrovsk this summer.
In meetings with Israeli and Jewish officials, Pravy Sektor leader Dmytro Yarosh has promised to work for the suppression of anti-Semitism.
Representatives of the movement met with Wolf following reports of vandalism and anti-Semitic graffiti throughout Odessa, pledging to defend the community, according to Ukrayinska Pravda.
Pravy Sektor spokesman Borislav Bereza, who is Jewish, was unavailable for comment on Sunday.
Some, like anti-Semitism researcher Vyacheslav Likhachev, believe that the group has shed much of its anti-Semitic baggage in its attempts to enter mainstream politics and that it currently espouses a concept of Ukrainian nationalism that is civil rather than ethnic.
Others, however, see Yarosh’s public statements against anti-Semitic as a “mere bluff,” Simon Geissbühler, a Swiss diplomat, wrote in a recent issue of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.
Members of that group, he said, are “even more radical and openly anti-Semitic” than supporters of the Svoboda party, which has been classed as a neo-Nazi faction by the World Jewish Congress.
The communal representative who spoke with The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity seemed to agree, but cautioned that the Jewish community is not Pravy Sektor’s primary target. Given the conflict with the Russians, the far Right’s focus on the Jews is “on the back-burner,” he asserted.
“It’s true that they have tried to show the community that they are not anti-Semitic, and we can only judge what we see.
Previously they had a very bad record and maybe it changed, but we are certainly not a target at the moment.”
While much of the fighting in Ukraine has been confined to the rebellion in the east, clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian groups in Odessa left dozens dead and prompted several communal leaders to announce contingency plans for the evacuation of children should the situation deteriorate.
Representatives of Chabad subsequently denied those statements. Michael Savin of the Russian Jewish Congress said the Russian media had exaggerated the Post’s report and claimed that a mass evacuation of the city’s Jews was imminent.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has invoked the specter of anti-Semitism as one of the justifications for his involvement in both Crimea and eastern Ukraine, telling a press conference earlier this year that there are “neo-Nazis, nationalists, and anti-Semites on rampages in parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.”
Moscow has consistently termed its opponents in Kiev fascists, and some Jewish leaders, including Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich and Joseph Zissels of the Vaad of Ukraine, have accused Putin of staging anti-Semitic provocations in Kiev during the months leading up to his invasion.
In the meantime, Jews throughout the country have said that they feel less endangered by anti-Semitism than they do by the war raging along the Russian border, which has created thousands of Jewish refugees.
“Ukraine will never allow recovery of fascism, persecution along ethnic, language, religious or other lines,” President Petro Poroshenko said last month at a memorial in Kiev for Ukrainian Jews killed during the Holocaust.
Russia held a similar event in occupied Crimea in July, leading to harsh criticism by Jewish leaders in Kiev.
Flyers distributed in Donetsk in April calling on Jews to register with rebel forces were disowned by officials of the Moscow- backed Donetsk People’s Republic, leading the Simon Wiesenthal Center to speculate that they were “some sort of provocation and an attempt to paint the pro-Russian forces as anti-Semitic.”
Both Putin and his Ukrainian counterparts have pledged the protect Jews, but there are those among the leadership of Ukrainian Jewry, such as Boris Fuchsmann of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, who have expressed discomfort with the confidence with which Bleich and Zissels have dismissed concerns over the possibility of a rise in anti-Semitism.
Asked about the possibility that the Russian news reports about his community were part of a propaganda war between Moscow and Kiev, Wolf replied that he did not wish to enter into politics, because the “Jews aren’t a side in this war.”
Chabad Rabbi Moshe Azman of Kiev was more outspoken, however, terming the reports Russian propaganda.
“We are against any use of anything Jewish and anti-Semitism for political purposes. Unfortunately, as in the past, today it continues to happen in several European countries and sometimes again lead to violence against Jews,” agreed Alex Selsky of the World Forum of Russian Speaking Jews.
A spokesman for the government’s Ukrainian Crisis Media Center called the reports “totally untrue information once again made up by Russian propagandists.”
The Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv was unable to provide a response by the time this newspaper went to print.
According to Victor Vertsner, a Russian-Israeli who was recently invited to speak at the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center and who raises money in Israel for the Ukrainian army, both sides have used the Jews in their propaganda, but more such material comes from Moscow than from Kiev. Representatives of Russian Jewry did not respond to requests for comment.