Ukraine’s Jews in the crucible

During the war in Ukraine, antisemitism became a tool for governments and propaganda.

PUTIN’S HYBRID WAR AND THE JEWS By Sam Sokol ISGAP 364 pages; $15.00 (photo credit: Courtesy)
PUTIN’S HYBRID WAR AND THE JEWS By Sam Sokol ISGAP 364 pages; $15.00
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was a dreadfully cold winter when Sam Sokol arrived in Ukraine in 2013. In Kiev, a revolution was bubbling to the surface and the author wanted to cover its effects on the country’s 70,000 Jews. Protesters had taken over the Maidan, the central square in Kiev, to challenge the pro-Russian government. Some of the Ukrainian nationalist groups were rumored to be virulently antisemitic, including the Svoboda Party.
“My heart pounded as I gazed at the Svodoba banners hanging limply,” Sokol writes in the opening chapter of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews. It is with this juxtaposition, of the writer who brings his Jewish background to the table, with the cold winter of Ukraine, that an exploration of what unfolded in Ukraine takes place, with ramifications that go far beyond Russia and Ukraine and affect the world.
Ukraine has a long and complex Jewish history. Part of my family left Odessa for the United States in the first years of the 20th century, so it is a country that I feel distant connections to. Before the Holocaust, there were around 2.7 million Jews in Ukraine. Some towns and cities had huge Jewish populations, which is hard to imagine now. What would it have been like to go to a town that was 30% Jewish in places where Jews are now not even a tiny percent?
Depending on which records and borders one goes by, Ukraine had an estimated population of 28 million in the 1930s, of which many millions suffered under a Soviet-caused famine that reportedly killed millions. As a result of the Holocaust, estimates put the population of Jews in Ukraine at around 840,000 by 1959, with another decline in population taking place in the 1990s when many emigrated. Tragically, the protests and conflict that took place after 2013 would cause more to flee.
Sokol’s book is a unique window into the Jewish community and its reactions to the unfolding events of the winter of 2013 and the spring of 2016. It mostly concentrates on the crucible of 2014 when pro-Russian president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych was forced from office by protest and Russian separatists created two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine. Today’s Ukraine and its relations with the West are a result of that crisis. It has lost the Crimea to Russia and the conflict in the east is frozen amidst a shaky ceasefire. As usual, Jews suffered disproportionately amid this, especially because so many Jews lived in the Donbas where the fighting in 2014 and after took place.
As Sokol shows in his account, the suffering was compounded by a “hybrid war” which blended war with propaganda in which Jews were at the center. Sokol shows how antisemitism and attacks on Jews increased amid the protests and chaos of 2013-2014. In Putin’s Hybrid War, the reality on the ground mixes with those who want to use the suffering of Jews for their own purposes. For example, when protests took place in Odessa, some Jews discussed evacuating the community if there were threats.
“The Russian media was quick to pick up the story, with multiple state-aligned outlets running stories that made it seem as if an evacuation was imminent,” Sokol writes.
This was part of a growing motif that sought to portray Ukraine as captured by extreme nationalists, and Russia as championing liberal causes. But both sides claimed to be protecting “the Jews.”
The result was that the Jewish community, as least briefly, became a tool in the conflict and suffered accordingly. The facts are a bit different, as Sokol shows. The 2014 elections in Ukraine reduced the power of the extreme Right. The real harm to Jewish communities was the fighting in the Donbas and Russian-backed separatists were not helpful in that respect.
In the long run, the reality is that both Ukraine and Russia are relatively free from the kinds of clichéd antisemitism associated with both countries, at least in comparison to most Western European countries. I’ve traveled to Ukraine and Russia and in contrast to the fortress-like siege that many synagogues appear to be under in other parts of Europe, where anti-Jewish attacks have become frequent and politicians excuse them as merely “anti-Israel,” Ukraine and Russia feel more secure.
Sokol’s book is an important contribution to our knowledge about what happened in Ukraine in 2014 and provides lessons for the way discussions about “Jews” become part of a weaponized media propaganda to paint either the Right or Left as being “bad for the Jews.” Unfortunately, this has also become a more prominent issue in the US, where increasing antisemitism on both the Left and Right is threatening Jews, and yet reports of the tragedy are neatly packaged into narratives politicizing each attack.
Unfortunately, the victims in all this are members of the Jewish minority.