Despite calls for neutrality in Ukraine protests, young Jews are on the front lines

Anti-Semitism bubbles just under surface, Jewish group believes, calling for increased security at public Jewish places.

Ukraine protests 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Ukraine protests 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
KIEV – Despite calls by Jewish leaders to remain neutral, young Jews have been on the front lines of protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.
Angered by Yanukovich’s decision to spurn an EU trade deal and move Ukraine further into Russia’s orbit, Ukrainians have taken to the streets, occupying Maidan (“Independence”) Square and nearby state buildings in the capital, Kiev. This is the second time in a decade that Ukrainians have come out in force against the president.
In the 2004 Orange Revolution, protesters alleged that Yanukovich had rigged a runoff vote between himself and opponent Viktor Yushchenko.
Several Jewish leaders have expressed their concerns over the prominent role that the ultranationalist Svoboda party has played in the protests. Svoboda’s leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, unlike many in the European far Right, is a supporter of greater European integration, due to his opposition to what he considers undue Russian influence in the former Soviet republic. He has stated that he believes that his country “is being controlled by a Russian- Jewish mafia.” Svoboda has 36 seats out of 450, or roughly eight percent of the total representation, in parliament.
Rabbi Moshe Azman, a local Chabad emissary and one of several men claiming the title of chief rabbi, told news website Arutz Sheva that he had canceled several public events for the commemoration of Hanukka due to fears of violence by protesters, specifically those affiliated with Svoboda.
The Ukrainian Jewish Committee warned local communities that they should remain neutral in the political conflict, director Eduard Dolinsky told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Speaking on behalf of UJC founder Oleksandr Feldman, an Independent MP in Yanukovich’s governing coalition and one of the country’s richest men, Dolinsky said that they have encouraged their co-religionists to “increase security everywhere, at every public Jewish place.”
“We communicated a message to every community independent of religious or community affiliation,” he said. “There can be a provocation at any moment.”
Feldman, he said, “is afraid of provocations and his only goal is to maintain the peace of all the forces and all the parties and especially to protect the Jewish community and minorities who can be vulnerable in this time.”
Feldman has been in contact with both the Interior Ministry and security services to try and obtain additional security for Jewish institutions, Dolinsky said, adding that a meeting of community heads would be convened in the coming days to consider the issue.
“We also spoke with ‘the Joint’ [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] and the American Jewish Committee. We would like to invite Israeli and other Jewish security experts in order to develop a comprehensive security plan. We don’t have any plans,” he said.
The Joint Distribution Committee is “following developments in Ukraine closely and remain in continual contact with our representatives on the ground and with local Jewish communities,” a JDC spokesman told the Post last week. “Our FSU director, Ofer Glanz, has made it clear that we stand ready to provide needy members of the community with extra food, medicine or other forms of relief should the situation require it.”
Dolinsky explained that while the protests are not driven by anti-Semitic rhetoric, one sees the Svoboda flag and can hear people chanting a World War II-era slogan, calling for the death of Ukraine’s enemies. The slogan, “Glory to the nation, death to its enemies,” was used by nationalist insurgents known for killing Jews, he added.
“It is repeated now everywhere,” Dolinsky said.
While one protester who spoke with the Post claimed that many do not understand the background of the slogan, Dolinsky disagreed.
“Some of them really do not understand; some of them, especially the leaders of the opposition, understand perfectly what it means and where it comes from,” he countered.
While Azman has canceled his programs and Dolinsky cited an acquaintance who was rebuffed by protesters who told him that Jews and Russians were not wanted, not everybody feels the same.
Alexandra Oleynikova, a young Jewish activist involved in organizing Limmud conferences, told the 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 such as JDC, Hillel and Limmud are “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.”
Reading about the protests on Facebook and seeing anti-Semitic comments is different from the reality on the ground, Oleynikova added. “When you read it on Facebook, you get pissed and you get very mad, but once you are there, actually on the site, it fades a little.
“I really don’t want to walk next to the people walking with the Svoboda flags and I don’t think it’s the right thing to do and I don’t support the leader, Tyagnibok. Most of my friends are very hesitant to walk around those people, and we really do not tolerate when people say that Jews should not be here. But generally, it’s more on Facebook; but once you’re at Maidan and you are there in the atmosphere it’s kind of like the borders, they are less physical. And again, those who are more active and are in Maidan all the time, they don’t care about it that much,” she explained.
However, she added, “They don’t show that much of a Jewish identity there.”
Alexander Iudashkin, another Jewish protester, told the Post that “nobody runs and screams ‘I hate Jews’ or something like that, but you can hear between the words sometimes.
“Svoboda don’t really care about Jews” at the protest, he said.
Disclosure: This reporter was a guest of the Kiev Jewish community. Reuters contributed to this report.