In the shadow of hate

The issue of rising anti-Semitism dominates discussions at the 2013 Kiev Interfaith Forum.

Kiev conference 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Kiev conference 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
The Jewish money changer with the long, beaked nose is hunched over, his intense gaze aimed at the piles of coins on the table before him, his expression intent. Walking the streets of downtown Kiev one evening during the course of the 2013 Kiev Interfaith Forum, a recently established annual conference organized by one of the leaders of the local Jewish community, I stumbled upon this Jewish-themed restaurant. A large neon sign in the shape of a bearded hassid illuminates the storefront, while the aforementioned statue of a money changer graces the front. In the entry corridor, frescos of Jews, including a caricature of a confused-looking Orthodox man with long side-curls and a gigantic hook nose, grace the walls.
Welcome to Ukraine.
Senior government officials and political figures in Ukraine have “continued efforts to combat anti-Semitism, by speaking out against extremism and social intolerance and criticizing anti-Semitic acts,” according to a recent human rights report from the US State Department. Yet, the Jewish community is extremely concerned over government and opposition candidates in recent elections who have attempted to “use elements of anti- Semitism, both in their public rhetoric to mobilize supporters, and also as part of propaganda aimed at discrediting their political opponents.”
Stumbling upon the restaurant, I immediately (and shamefully) take off my kippa, worried about walking the nighttime streets of a city where such an eatery makes enough money to stay in business.
ANTI-SEMITISM, always an issue in Ukraine, has overtaken all other issues in the Jewish discourse on Europe. In Hungary, the rise of the Jobbik Party, which has 43 out of 386 seats in parliament and has called for lists of potentially dangerous Jews to be drawn up, has locals worried.
In Greece, members of the Golden Dawn Party have denied the Holocaust and traded in conspiracy theories, such as the Jews being responsible for World War II. Violence on the streets of Athens even led to the beating of Gil Shefler, then a correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. Although his assailants are unknown, many Jews attribute the atmosphere of violence in the Greek capital at least partly to the hate stirred up by the ultra-nationalist fringe that is gaining seats in the parliaments of the aforementioned countries.
The truth is, street violence against Jews in Ukraine is not a daily occurrence, according to Ukrainian Jewish Committee founder Oleksandr Feldman, an MP with the the ruling Party of Regions faction. I soon put my kippa back on, but the fear is definitely there.
Feldman is one of several Jewish MPs, and a prominent figure in Ukrainian Jewish life.
It is at his invitation that I came to the Ukrainian capital to see the restaurant. A proponent of dialogue, Feldman believes that it is only through discussion that any progress can be made. At the interfaith forum, several leaders of various Jewish organizations express their fears over the rise of the hard Right in interviews with the Post.
In October’s parliamentary elections, the ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party won 36 seats out of 450. Eight percent of the total representation in the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) is now in the hands of an allegedly anti-Semitic party.
The leader of the political organization formally known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine, Oleh Tyahnybok, has been quoted as saying that “Ukraine is being controlled by a Russian-Jewish mafia.” Such statements are not reassuring to local Jews.
Prior to the 2013 conference, part of which was held in the Rada, Ukrainian Jewish Committee executive director Eduard Dolinsky told me that while the forum is “not a Jewish event only... nevertheless it sends a strong message to Svoboda and other haters that there is a very strong, international movement of various religions against anti-Semitism, that there is no future for such ideology.”
“No one expected Svoboda to gain so many seats,” he said at the time. “Now, we are coming to terms and are ready to fight. Every Jewish community in Ukraine, every Jewish organization, is actually on alert.”
During an interview with the Post, Feldman opens up about the Ukrainian Jewish community’s response to the rise of Svoboda, which is most successful in Western Ukraine due to its fierce nationalism, opposition to Russian influence and the Russian language, and widespread dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties, which are seen by many Ukrainians are corrupt.
Asked if Svoboda could be compared to Jobbik in Hungary, Feldman says that he believes it to be an “ultra-Jobbik” party. Svoboda’s members, he says, are acting not just out of anti-Semitism, but out of jealousy of the economic progress of prominent Jews.
“They are not capable themselves of doing the same things as the successful people,” he says, noting that anti-Semitism is also an important factor. “It’s a combination of both.”
After the fall of Communism, he adds, “people worked, and within 20-plus years there were those who accomplished something, constructed something,” but not everybody succeeded.
“Anti-Semitism is in combination with envy with them.”
For years before its rise, members of Svoboda “were running around with slogans, and they were busy talking ‘blah blah blah,’ and they were trying to create some political capital,” Feldman says.
Now “from hell, they are jumping into the world.”
The party used to call itself “a National Socialist party,” he says, “and they added this word ‘svoboda,’ meaning ‘freedom,’ only recently. They [constitute] a terrible combination of Communist and Hitlerite ideas. They picked up and extracted the most [extreme] stuff from both ideologies and put them together.”
Both Jews and gentiles have suffered from the hatred wrought by Svoboda, he adds. “People are frightened. Not only Jews but Azerbaijanis, Armenians and [other] non-Ukrainians.”
Svoboda believes that “Ukraine is for [ethnic] Ukrainians” only, he adds. “It’s a fascist ideology.”
At first people were just laughing, Feldman says, but “the genie is out of the bottle” and Svoboda is out of control. “In Kharkov they have 15-20% [support] now [and] 45% in Kiev. This is terrifying stuff. It’s pretty bad.”
Their support, he continues, comes from “a lot of angry people who feel disenfranchised.
It’s a protest vote, so Jews are a useful and convenient target. They are not shy about fascist kinds of stuff and sound like fascists.”
Even a year ago, prior to the entrance of Svoboda to the Rada, he says, anti-Semitism was considered indecent, and now it has become more legitimate.
“I’m not saying that anti-Semitism was not there, but it was kind of shameful to be anti-Semitic – and now it’s pretty obvious,” he mourns. “Nobody is shy about it.”
Those who wanted to and were able have left for the United States, Germany and Israel, he says, although he firmly believes that there is a Jewish future in his country.
“People are getting scared. They are not confident, they don’t have this feeling [of safety]. Every single day there is graffiti, and glass is broken, and rabbis are accused of something, and children are afraid – and not [just] in the places where Svoboda is very popular in Western Ukraine. But now it’s all over Ukraine.”
“Hooligans,” Feldman says, have also begun to act under the Svoboda name to justify their hooliganism, masking criminal activity as political.
Various Jewish leaders at the Kiev Interfaith Forum also have a similar message for the Post, with several saying that they are scared and that something has to be done.
THE UKRAINIAN Jewish Committee’s Dolinsky sits in the bar of the hotel where the forum is taking place, a jeweled menorah pin sparkling on his lapel in the dim light.
He is optimistic about the chances of interfaith dialogue making inroads against hate, but says that in facing anti-Semitism, “education comes second” to law enforcement.
There are laws against inciting ethnic hatred in Ukraine, he notes, but unfortunately it is difficult to prove intent and convictions are rare.
“There are some articles in the criminal code that [the Svoboda leadership] can be charged with, but they are very general and to prove intent is almost impossible,” he explains.
However, he says, he does believe in the message of interfaith dialogue.
“Look, the idea behind the Kiev Interfaith Forum was, first of all, to set an example for this country, which is a post- Soviet and post-Communist country, of interfaith dialogue – which never existed here before.
“The country went through horrific tragedies like the Holocaust [and Communism], and the churches and the Jewish religion were destroyed completely. So during the [past] 20 years of [Ukrainian] independence, the churches, the synagogues were recovering and restoring. We feel that if time came for interfaith dialogue, which has already existed for many years in the West.
“We do believe this affects our relations with regular people. This affects in a positive way the regular people’s attitudes towards Jews, toward Muslims and toward Christians. This makes the basis and the ground for the harmony in the interfaith relations,” Dolinsky adds.
“If you look at the churches for the past 10, 15 years, they never made any expression of anti-Semitism or anything like that. But the regular people, they do carry some old stereotypes that still exist, and we believe that what we do now is a step forward for the better understanding between us. I can’t say that after this conference that all Ukrainians will say that the Jews are our brothers and we will hug each other, but this is a long way and these are the small steps.”
Events such as Feldman’s forum are part of the answer to Svoboda, he says.
“We seriously believe that this is a very significant step against what Svoboda is trying to proclaim.”
These events counter the Svoboda ideal of giving minorities like the Jews a proportional share in academia, business and politics, a “death sentence” for a small minority group that is as successful as the Jews.
“To not take the smartest or the best to lead this country – they are saying it will be proportional. It’s very similar to what the Nazis said. It’s different but it’s [also] something that’s very close,” says Feldman. “At this point, [Svoboda is] very popular, and if the election would have happened now they would take even more seats,” Dolinsky believes. “We as a Jewish community were shocked when they entered the parliament. We are still in some state of disorder, but we are ready to fight.”
However, he readily admits, “we do not yet have a solution and a plan.”
Yet it seems that Svoboda does.
According to Feldman and Dolinsky, party leader Tyahnybok was in touch with the Israeli Embassy in Kiev to coordinate a visit to Israel. However, Feldman and Dolinsky both told the Post, such a trip was nixed when the Foreign Ministry instructed Ambassador Reuven Dinel to cut contact with the party.
The match was made by a Jewish MP, Feldman notes, but declined to provide a name or any further identifying details. Such a trip, they say, would have had the effect of masking the party’s “anti-Semitism” and would have been, in Feldman’s estimation, dangerous.
However, ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor has denied Feldman’s assertions, telling the Post that “the Israeli ambassador in Kiev met with a Svoboda leader – I think it was the party’s leader – in order to verify if, as reported, he had changed his positions on Jews and Israel. There was no invitation to come to Israel, and no further contact was made. No instructions were sent by the Foreign Ministry.”
At the end of the day, while things have not gotten quite as bad as in Hungary, the situation is deteriorating. While the top echelons of the government are fighting anti- Semitism, Ukraine is experiencing a resurgence on the grassroots level.
And that has the local Jews scared.