Hatred in Ukraine

The anti-Semitism that was unfashionable in postwar Western Europe is burgeoning again in the shape of anti-Zionism, whereas in Ukraine it is vulgar and in-your-face.

Viktor Yanukovych (photo credit: Reuters)
Viktor Yanukovych
(photo credit: Reuters)
Historically, Ukrainian anti-Semitism is legend for its crudity, ferocity and intrinsicality. The Ukraine’s reputation for ongoing racism and ever-virulent intolerance is equally well-earned. Jew-revulsion never quite went out of fashion among broad segments of the population there.
So it was not too shocking to learn last week that the extreme nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party’s fortunes had risen dramatically in the recent elections and that it now controls 41 out of the parliament’s 450 seats.
But there is a far more disturbing aspect to this development. Svoboda did not do equally well in all parts of Ukraine. It garnered most success in the western Ukraine, the parts ripped off Poland after World War II.
In the city of Lviv (which was one-third Jewish before the Holocaust and which Jews know as Lvov or Lemberg), it gained a whopping 50 percent of the vote. In June and July 1941 Ukrainian marauders rampaged through Lvov’s streets and butchered thousands of Jews in two pogroms.
The Svoboda party now fetes these murderers as patriots, along with the Nazi-accomplice Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
Svoboda’s leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, repeatedly rails that Ukraine is occupied by “Yids and Russians.” Svoboda candidates have been reported to have urged party loyalists to resort to “Hamas methods,” to have characterized the Holocaust as European history’s “heyday” and to have denigrated Israel “an illegitimate state.”
Svoboda’s ideological roots, however, are hardly out of sync with the country’s mainstream, where it is still de rigueur to equate (if not justify) WWII’s Jewish bloodletting with the Stalin-instigated 1932-33 Ukrainian famine. The rise of Svoboda thus may attest to atavist proclivities, which go deeper than the election results indicate.
Ukraine unfortunately hadn’t cleansed its citizenry of endemic anti-Semitism. Most often this expresses itself in vandalism, vituperation and vilification. Occasionally, though, subterranean sentiments surface more violently.
Thus earlier this year Jewish student Alexander Goncharov was sadistically beaten –within an inch of his life – by Ukrainian skinheads in Kiev. In April 2010, 25-year-old Kiev yeshiva student Aryeh-Leib Misinzov was kidnapped, murdered and dismembered by a skinhead gang on Hitler’s birthday.
Outpourings of abuse on the fringes of Ukrainian society are matched only by establishment antipathy. Outright callousness produced the Kiev Municipality’s 2009 plan to erect a hotel precisely where the Babi Yar memorial is located.
Nearly 34,000 Jews were machine-gunned there by the Nazis in 48 hours on September 29 and 30, 1941. Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s 1961 epic poem shamed the Soviets into erecting a monument at the site.
Kiev’s blueprint for that monument’s removal was only scrapped after loud protests that official Ukraine originally greeted with unabashed resentment. That the desecration could have at all been considered – indeed obstinately insisted upon – signifies disdain. Such undercurrents of aversion increase the probability of attacks on people.
The latest one occurred this month in Lviv, shortly before the elections. Dr. Leon Freifeld, a Jewish surgeon and university professor who headed the city’s largest hospital emergency department, was beaten to death. But this may not be the handiwork of Ukrainian neo-Nazis. Local police have charged disgruntled Arab medical students with the homicide.
Ordinarily Europe’s Muslim fanatics and neo-fascist youths are hostile to one another. But there is one pernicious common denominator that these fixated elements share – their animus toward Jews. This is scarcely the exclusive preserve of Ukraine, though its particularly noxious brand of anti-Semitism provides a fertile breeding ground for what is admittedly prevalent throughout Europe these days. In this sense the Ukraine is not fundamentally different from the rest of Europe, but is in essence more Europe than Europe – presenting a more unbridled manifestation of what thrives throughout the continent, typically in more genteel guise.
In that context, little has changed. The anti-Semitism that was unfashionable in postwar Western Europe is burgeoning again in the shape of anti-Zionism, whereas in Ukraine it is vulgar and in-your-face – as it was before the Soviets temporarily held the genie in the bottle.
Such phenomena should have been unthinkable after the Holocaust and today’s Europe should regard them as a badge of dishonor.