The crisis in Ukraine and ‘the new Jewish question’

For me, an ex-Soviet Jew there's one aspect that is striking, the birth of a new political phenomenon in both Kiev and Moscow for a fondness for Jews.

An Orthodox Jew prays in the Ukrainian town of Uman. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Orthodox Jew prays in the Ukrainian town of Uman.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The present turmoil in Ukraine has a variety of facets. Still, for me, an ex-Soviet Jew (I was born in Kiev and spent my childhood in Kiev and my youth in Moscow) there is one aspect of the conflict between Moscow and Kiev that is especially striking, albeit one that is also being absolutely ignored. Indicating the birth of a new political phenomenon in both Kiev and Moscow is an exceptional fondness for Jews, despite recent anti-Semitic leaflets which appeared in Donetsk, Ukraine.
To start with, the signs of Russian Judophilia abound in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, despite political turmoil, found time for a long and cordial conversation with the Russian chief rabbi; Kremlin-affiliated mass media proclaimed that Russia took over Crimea to save all ethnicities, including Jews, from Nazi-type Ukrainian nationalists.
Zavtra, the influential Russian nationalist newspaper that often publishes implicitly anti-Semitic articles, published an extensive interview with a Russian Israeli who praised the Kremlin’s recent actions.
The interview led to extremely positive responses from Zavtra readers, most of whom are hardly Judophiles.
Avigdor Eskin, also a Russian Jew, who lives in Israel, made a presentation on one of the leading Russian TV channels praising both Jews and Russians as the true spiritual and messianic people – the audience responded with a standing ovation.
Kiev seems to be competing with Moscow in demonstrating its love for Jews. It has been asserted that Ukraine was always a hospitable place for Jews, and there was even a rumor that a Ukrainian Jew was to run for president in the May election. This competition in expressing Judophilia is surreal and even amusing in light of the fact that in the not-so-distant past the situation was entirely different.
As my born-in-Kiev father testifies, in the late 1949s/early 1950s Kiev and Moscow competed in expressing anti-Semitic sentiment during the so-called fight against “cosmopolitanism.”
Later, as I remember well, to be a Jew in the USSR was hardly a pleasurable experience, creating problems for those who wanted both a good education and employment.
In this anti-Semitic competition, Ukraine definitely led, and it was not surprising that two of my relatives, both born in Ukraine, moved to Georgia and Kazakhstan, respectively, where grassroots anti-Semitism did not exist and employment opportunities were better. Why then has there been such a dramatic change in behavior? The reasons, of course, are manifold.
Still, one of the most important is that Kiev and Moscow both desire to use the proverbial “Jewish question” in their jousting with each other, to recruit foreign opinion to their side. This is most clearly the case with Moscow, and could be seen already in the 1990s and especially in the early 2000s when mostly East/ Central European nations proclaimed that they had suffered under Russian/ Soviet rule in the same way as the Jews had under the Nazis. Israeli and many Jewish historians strongly protested, and Moscow quickly took their side and recast recent history.
In this case, Moscow’s involvement in the Ukrainian crisis has emerged as a repetition of the WWII Red Army march, which opened the gate of the concentration camps, saving millions of European Jews. While the appeal to the WWII legacy is important in dealing with the West in general, it is especially important in Moscow’s dealings with Berlin, seen here – and not without grounds – as more predisposed to Moscow than any other of the major Western capitals. While appealing to the Germans for understanding of his actions in Crimea, Putin touched on several often-contradictory layers of German national subconsciousness.
ON ONE hand, Putin evoked the memory of ethnic Germans who lived apart for several generations after WWII. He also clearly implied the much deeper drama of millions of Germans who were expelled from their land because of their “collective guilt,” or were separated by what many of them regarded as artificial borders. On the other hand, while presenting Moscow as the defender of Jews, Putin appealed to the other side of the German mind: the sense of guilt and the image of the Holocaust as an absolute evil that must be fought at all costs. This should provide Moscow, as Putin implied, justification for annexation of part of Ukraine.
How to evaluate this Moscow stance? One of course could see this as a manifestation of the Kremlin’s sophisticated propaganda, and see Moscow’s policy as a return to the centuries-old imperial tradition. The reality, however, is more complicated.
The point is that in the past, Moscow – as well as Kiev – used the Jews as scapegoats in the case of political/ social crises. The calamities of the 1917 Revolution and Civil War were attributed by conservative Russian émigrés to a “Jewish conspiracy.”
Some Ukrainian émigré historians attributed the grand famine in Ukraine in the 1930s to Jews.
Still, it is also clear that a considerable segment of both the elite and the masses based in Moscow and Kiev have tried to avoid the centuries-old stereotypes and regard Jews as citizens of their respective countries and as such sharing with everybody else common hopes, aspirations, fears and prejudices. And this is definitely a new phenomenon, at least in the recent history of both nations, and a positive sign regardless of the outcome of events.