Covering Kiev: Jews fear opposition’s anger might turn against them

Reporter's notebook: Despite anxiety, there are no indications that anti-Semitism is part of the protesters’ discourse.

Kiev protests 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Kiev protests 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
KIEV – I’m standing in Kiev’s Town Hall on Wednesday, down the street from the city’s Maidan (“Independence”) Square, the site of massive protests by hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians dissatisfied with their country’s leadership and economic ties with Russia.
The square, and nearby state buildings, occupied by citizens incensed by President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to spurn an EU trade deal and move Ukraine further into Russia’s orbit, are a teeming campground of tents, banners, lean-tos and makeshift soup kitchens exhibiting, at first blush, an almost festival atmosphere.
It is only after one notices the small army of protesters breaking up ice and piling up snow, to add to growing barricades, that one realizes that Maidan has been a battlefield.
On Tuesday night, riot police flooded roads to the square and moved slowly into the main camp, bulldozing tents and barricades with tractors mounted with shovels.
The police tried to storm city hall, but protester pushed them back, wielding high pressure fire hoses from the structure’s upper floors.
Wandering through the building several hours after the fight, having come straight from the airport, I notice helmeted men, some wearing camouflage pants tucked into military style boots, putting away the hoses as protesters stream into the building.
In the main hall, representatives of the various opposition factions have hung banners from the gallery. Volunteers hand out flags and solicit donations for their parties.
An old woman sitting at a desk surrounds herself with items bearing the logo of Svoboda, an ultra-nationalist faction that the local Jewish community and the World Jewish Congress consider neo-Nazi.
Protesters sleeping on floor mats fill much of the hall, many with gas masks and helmets by their side. Off to the side, several makeshift clinics distribute medicine and stand ready to administer first aid to the wounded.
One young man, a linguist by trade, tells me that despite the fears of many in Ukraine’s Jewish community, there is no real danger of an outbreak of anti-Semitism, even with the active participation of Svoboda in the protests.
“I’ve been teased and called a Jew by friends for standing up against anti-Semitism, and I support Svoboda here,” he tells The Jerusalem Post. Svoboda and the other opposition groups, he says, must be supported as an alternative to a leadership that many Ukrainians see as inept and corrupt.
Still, it is chilling to be so close to so many members of the party.
At the end of the day, however, the protests are a force of their own, one that the opposition leaders can only try to harness.
Speaking with the Post, Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, says that while he does not know of any attacks against Jews, there is a general feeling of anxiety on the part of the community.
Protesters affiliated with Svoboda, he says, have led chants, originally used by Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, calling for the death of “enemies” of Ukraine.
However, Igor, a Ukrainian expat who returned home from Germany to join the protests, disagrees with Dolinsky.
Holding aloft a banner urging Yanukovich to resign in favor of an interim government pending early elections, Igor tells me that many people chant the slogans without understanding what they mean.
This, Dolinsky argues, is disingenuous.
While there are no indications that anti-Semitism has become a part of the protesters’ discourse, local websites have begun tallying which Jewish figures are on their side and which support Yanukovich, a Jewish shopkeeper tells the Post.
Fear that the anger of the crowds could turn against the Jews is ever present among members of the tribe in Kiev, prompting the Ukrainian Jewish Committee to turn to its American counterparts for help.
“We have turned to the American Jewish Committee and the [American Jewish] Joint [Distribution Committee] to formulate emergency plans,” Dolinsky says. “We don’t have any in place.”
As for me, I plan on spending much of the night in the square.
Disclosure: This reporter was a guest of the Kiev Jewish community. Reuters contributed to this report.