Uncovering anti-Semitism in old Kiev

Anti-Semitism is alive and well in Kiev as Hillel marks its 10th anniversary there.

anti sem 88 (photo credit: )
anti sem 88
(photo credit: )
At the 10th anniversary of the establishment of Hillel in Ukraine last month, a host of international officials came to laud the efforts of the largest Hillel center in the former Soviet Union. But as Hillel representatives, students and city officials walked out the doors of Hillel House after the festivities, they were greeted with quite a shock. A few meters from the Hillel House entrance stands a sizable kiosk crammed with barefaced anti-Semitic literature - pamphlets, magazines and books. Propaganda and anti-Semitic cartoons and caricatures line the shelves like something from Nazi-era Germany. "I couldn't believe my eyes," says Rabbi Yossie Goldman, Associate Vice President of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. "We are celebrating the renaissance of Jewish student life in Ukraine - of Jews returning to their roots after decades of Communist rule that denied their parents and grandparents the ability to worship, practice and proudly identify as Jews. Here we are in the year 2006, and our young people still have to deal with blatant anti-Semitism." The kiosk is sponsored by the Inter-Regional Academy of Personnel Management (MAUP, a Russian acronym). This Kiev-based university, the largest private university in the country, continues to generate controversy for its notorious anti-Zionist stance, and for its widespread publication and distribution of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda. MAUP claims 50,000 students, including hundreds of foreign students, who study at a number of campuses throughout the country, the largest being in Kiev. Both the government of Israel and the Simon Wiesenthal Center have urged the Ukrainian authorities to close MAUP, or at least ban its anti-Semitic publications, but so far, no sanctions have been imposed upon the university. MAUP is considered a prominent and well-respected university in Kiev, and many Ukrainian politicians have received honorary titles and degrees from the institution. Last summer, MAUP sponsored a conference entitled "Zionism as the Greatest Threat to Civilization" at which Jews were referred to as "Judeo-Nazis," and appeals to "deport the Jews from Ukraine" were heard. To date, there has been little interest in halting this show of anti-Semitism. When the newly-elected Mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovitsky, was asked to intervene, he suggested that Hillel seek restitution in the court system. While Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko has openly condemned xenophobia and the anti-Semitic actions of MAUP, no official legal steps have been taken to rein in its activities. HILLEL, THE largest Jewish student organization in the world, has 27 centers throughout the former Soviet Union. Goldman, who founded Hillel in the former Soviet Union 11 years ago, explains that Hillel's goal is to enrich the lives of Jewish students with meaningful Jewish experiences so that they may enrich the Jewish people and the world. Yosef Axelrud, the Director of Kiev Hillel, claims that his students are extremely upset. "They asked me how something like this can happen in a democratic country," he says. Axelrud believes that students will take action, demonstrating against such anti-Semitic propaganda and making their voices heard in the local press. According to Goldman, anti-Semitism was kept under wraps during Communism, but since Ukraine became an independent democracy, the appearance of blatant anti-Jewish sentiment has mushroomed. "I was astonished and appalled to see such anti-Semitic titles as The Jewish Syndrome, David Duke's The Jewish Question, Matzah of Zion, and The Truth About Babi Yar all translated into the Russian and Ukrainian languages, adorning the plentiful bookshelves," says Goldman. Hillel officials questioned the young girl selling the books, who said that she wasn't responsible for the literature, and was just glad to have a well-paying job. Axelrud sees this trend as very dangerous. "Kiev today has become inundated with stalls like this selling fascist and anti-Semitic literature, mainly published by MAUP. Unfortunately, young people who want to learn about Judaism read this literature and think it is true." According to the Ukrainian Jewish organization Va'ad, MAUP is responsible for 85 percent of anti-Jewish publications disseminated in Ukraine. MAUP plays a critical role in legitimizing these extremist views for the mainstream. "Last year a yeshiva student was almost beaten to death," bemoans Axelrud, " and the perpetrators claimed that they had based their act on literature of this kind. So we see that an event such as this is a direct result of unbridled, and easily accessible, fascist propaganda." Goldman and Axelrud contend that Hillel and the Ukrainian Jewish community will not remain passive about this issue. "Jewish youth have it hard enough, awakening their sense of pride and knowledge about their Jewish heritage, denied to them and their parents for so many years, let alone making ends meet, and deciding about their future. Now they must also contend with this challenge as well." The writer is publications and grants coordinator for the Israel division of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life at the Hebrew University.