Violence Frightens Ukrainian Jews

Oleh Tiahnybok, center, leader of Svoboda, an opposition political party, talks with Ukrainian Orthodox priests backstage at anti-government protests on Dec. 11, 2013 in Kiev. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Oleh Tiahnybok, center, leader of Svoboda, an opposition political party, talks with Ukrainian Orthodox priests backstage at anti-government protests on Dec. 11, 2013 in Kiev.
(Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Two violent anti-Semitic incidents that took place in Kiev over the course of a week have alarmed the Ukrainian Jewish community. Some experts speculate that the events could be related to the political conflict that has engulfed the country since November 2013.

On Jan. 11, several men attacked Hillel Wertheimer, an Orthodox Jewish and Israeli teacher of Hebrew and Jewish tradition, after he left a synagogue at the end of Shabbat. On Jan. 18, a yeshiva student, Dov-Ber Glickman, was severely attacked by men with their fists and legs on his way home from a Shabbat meal.

According to the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress’ General Council, the combat boots of Glickman’s attackers may have been outfitted with blades. Glickman dragged himself to a nearby synagogue’s ritual bath, where he was discovered and taken to a hospital. Glickman told IDF Radio on Sunday that “people are now afraid to leave their homes.”

“The frightening thing is that [the attackers] arrived by car, and were apparently organized,” Hillel Cohen, chairman of the Hatzalah Ukraine emergency services group, told theIsraeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

In an additional incident on Jan. 18, yeshiva students detained a suspicious individual whom they said was found to possess a detailed plan of the surrounding neighborhood.

Sam Kliger, the American Jewish Committee’s director of Russian Jewish community affairs, believes the incidents could be a “sinister sign indicating that some are trying to use anti- Semitism in political confrontation in Ukraine.”

“Historically in this part of the world,” he explained via email, “a political confrontation sooner or later starts to exploit the ‘Jewish question’ and to play the Jewish card.”

Jan. 19 saw an intensification of the Maidan protests that have been taking place intermittently since Nov- ember. On Jan. 21, demonstrators clashed with police forces by catapulting Molotov cocktails. Police fired rubber bullets and smoke bombs. About 30 protesters were detained. About 200 people were injured and vehicles were torched, Bloomberg News reported.

In November, when the protests first began in Kiev’s Independence Square in opposition to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to freeze plans to join a free trade agreement with the European Union, some Ukrainian-Jewish leaders had canceled events out of fear that Jews may be targeted. At the time, the ultra-nationalist Ukrainian political opposition party Svoboda, which is viewed as an anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi group by various Jewish organizations, was participating in the protests. But there was little indication of anti-Semitism among protesters.

Given the two recent violent attacks on Jews, there are some who suggest that “some pro-governmental forces are behind the attacks in order to then blame the nationalists and ultra-nationalist groups associated with Maidan protesters to denounce their legitimacy,” explained Kliger. “Yet another version suggests the opposite, namely that some radical groups like neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists are behind the attack, which they then can blame on the government.”

Historian and EAJC member Vyacheslav Likhachev said in an editorial published Jan. 19 that the former is more likely than the latter.

“The large-scale civil protests … really do include groups of radical youths whose slogans and actions repel even the nationalistic All-Ukrainian ‘Svoboda’ Union Party,” wrote Likhachev. But such activists have been heavily
occupied with protecting the center of the Maidan protests and preparing for confrontations with government forces.

On Jan. 20, President Yanukovych agreed to form a cross-party commission to try to bring an end to the conflict, but the opposition reportedly signaled its desire to stay away from talks not including the direct participation of the president.

“Considering the general direction of what is happening on the Maidan, I believe that even the most thuggish of the protesters are not interested in Jews at the moment,” wrote Likhachev.

Since the Ukrainian government has been portraying protestors as a threat to minorities, wondered Likhachev, pro-government forces may be instigating incidents in order to blame the protesters.

“It is possible that the second, more cruel incident happened due to the first not having enough resonance in the media,” although “15 years of experience in monitoring hate crimes tell me that usually hate crime is just a hate crime and not an element of some complex and global political plot,” asserted Likhachev.

Josef Zisels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, emphasized in an official statement translated from Russian that the anti-Semitic attacks were synchronized with the adoption of new legislation initiated by Yanukovych late last week that outlaws many forms of protests. The law bans wearing hardhats or masks, building tents or stages, and disseminating “extremist information” about the government.

“Journalists and public figures, including those acting on behalf of the Jewish community, rushed without any factual basis to tie the assaults with the campaign of peaceful civil protests,” said Zisels.

Both AJC and The National Conference Supporting Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia, which is known by the acronym NCSJ, issued statements condemning the anti-Semitic attacks and asking the Ukrainian government to investigate the incidents and bring the perpetrators to justice.

NCSJ executive director Mark Levin said that “no one really knows the full truth” yet about who is responsible for the attacks. He, however, is not surprised by the incidents.

“Anti-Semitism unfortunately remains an issue in Ukraine,” he stated. “It ebbs and flows.”

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