Ukraine mayor accused of anti-Semitism

Jewish leaders in Ukraine and Russia condemn mayor who called a presidential hopeful "an impudent little Jew."

Serhiy Ratushnyak 88 (photo credit: )
Serhiy Ratushnyak 88
(photo credit: )
Jewish leaders in Ukraine and Russia on Thursday condemned the mayor of a Ukrainian city who called a presidential hopeful "an impudent little Jew," and Russia's chief rabbi said he would travel there in a show of support for the local Jewish community. The incident was a worrying sign of persistent anti-Semitism in a country that lost hundreds of thousands of Jews in the Holocaust, but also evidence of a heated presidential election campaign in a politically chaotic country and Ukraine's tense relations with neighboring Russia. Prosecutors have charged Serhiy Ratushnyak, the mayor of the western city of Uzhhorod, with hooliganism, abuse of office and xenophobia, said Viktoriya Popovych, a spokeswoman for the regional prosecutor's office. The investigation was opened after Ratushnyak assailed former parliament speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk and attacked one of his campaign workers last month. Popovych would not provide further details. Yatsenyuk accuses Ratushnyak of attacking and injuring a young woman who campaigned for him in Uzhhorod on Aug. 6. The mayor threw himself at the woman, grabbed her by the throat and threw her to the ground, causing bruises and a concussion, according to Yatsenyuk's office. Later, Ratushnyak called Yatsenyuk "an impudent little Jew" and said the politician was confusing the January presidential vote in Ukraine with small town elections in Israel, according to Yatsenyuk. Yatsenyuk has been vague about his heritage, saying both of his parents are Ukrainian. Ratushnyak denied he attacked the campaign activist, calling the incident a "myth." He did, however, confirm his remarks regarding Yatsenyuk but said he believed they were not offensive. "Is everybody obliged to love Jews and Israel? If I don't like Jews and Israel, does that make me an anti-Semite?" he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. Ratushnyak said that Yatsenyuk has no business running for president of Ukraine. "Do you think a Ukrainian would go there [Israel] ... set up tents there and run for president, and do you think he would not be called an impudent Ukrainian?" the mayor said. "So they are allowed to do everything and I - on my own land - am being told which word to use and which word not to use. This is what Zionism is." Jewish leaders said anti-Semitism should have no place in Ukraine, which lost some 1.4 million of its 2.4 million Jews during the Holocaust, many of them in western Ukraine, and which strives to integrate with the European Union. Russia's chief rabbi, Berel Lazar, said he would visit Uzhhorod near the Hungarian border on Monday to support the local Jewish community. Ukraine's chief rabbi, Yakov Blaikh, also condemned Ratushnyak's actions. "There is no place for him in modern day Ukraine," Blaikh told the AP. "He is missing the point of multinational Ukraine." The dispute illustrates the tense relations between Kiev and Moscow. Russian leaders have fiercely opposed Ukraine's efforts to throw off Russian influence and join NATO, and have not missed a chance to criticize Ukraine for domestic problems and a lack of tolerance. Blaikh said that Lazar was always welcome in Ukraine, but added that he believed anti-Semitism was more widespread in Russia than in Ukraine. "Plenty of anti-Semites in Russia can use the help of Berel Lazar before he worries about anti-Semitism in Ukraine," he said.