Monday, November 24, 2014

The Ukrainian Revolution’s Jewish Question

WARSAW – “And from a Jewish perspective?” I asked Josef Zissels. The veteran Ukrainian dissident, Jewish activist, and passionate advocate of Ukraine’s “Maidan” movement, had just finished briefing a Warsaw audience about the movement’s spectacular victory and President Viktor Yanukovych’s fall from power. “There is no Jewish perspective,” he answered. “There are Jews on both sides of the divide.”

That is certainly true. For example, Aleksander Feldman, the chairman of the Jewish Fund for Ukraine, is a prominent parliamentarian for Yanukovych’s Party of Regions – though he condemned the deposed president after his fall. And several Jewish oligarchs were close to Yanukovych until the very end.

But support by Jews for the Maidan movement was much more salient. Four of the 82 protesters killed in Kyiv’s Independence Square were Jewish, and a Jewish sotnia, or “hundred” – a term, ironically, associated with Cossack pogromists – defended the square against Yanukovych’s uniformed goons.

And yet, alongside Jews at the Maidan were Ukrainian nationalists, with their long history of anti-Semitism. That history is important, not only because it justifies treating them with suspicion. More important, it animates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repeated denunciations of “neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites” allegedly running rampant in the streets of Kyiv, forcing a reluctant Russia to protect Jews, Russians, and any decent Ukrainians who remain.

What are we to make of such claims? In recent weeks, violence targeting Jews has indeed occurred, including the stabbing of a rabbi in Kyiv and the firebombing of a synagogue in Zaporizhia. But it is impossible to ascertain the perpetrators, and the Maidan nationalists – the Svoboda party, which has five members in the new government and idolizes wartime leader Stepan Bandera, and the even more extreme Right Sector – have taken pains to stress that anti-Semitism is not part of their program today.

Such disavowals should not be discounted as mere window dressing. After all, one dresses windows with what one knows the customer wants to see. And the customer of the Maidan is the Ukrainian people, not The New York Times. If nationalists believe that they will not curry favor with Ukrainians by Jew-baiting, that is a welcome development.

Still, though Ukraine’s chief rabbis and Jewish leaders have emphatically rejected Putin’s claims of anti-Semitic excesses, there is enough hatred and blood in Ukraine’s recent history to make one worry. Anti-Semitism was an integral part of European twentieth-century nationalisms, and Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists was no exception. The OUN conducted terrorist attacks in pre-war Poland, was persecuted by the Soviets after they occupied Eastern Poland in 1939, allied itself with the Nazis after they invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and slaughtered thousands of Poles and Jews in a drive to “purify” Ukraine.

But Bandera’s men were nationalists with no allies. The OUN broke with the Nazis after they denied Ukraine independence, and finally fought the Soviets and both the army of Communist Poland and the anticommunist Polish underground after the Germans were routed. In western Ukraine, they remain the incarnation of a heroic myth. In eastern Ukraine, with its large Russian population, they are widely seen as traitors to the Soviet motherland.

So it is no surprise that Putin is trying to place the Maidan movement beyond the pale by emphasizing the OUN’s passing, if bloody, alliance with the Nazis. But the “Great Russia” nationalism that he has stirred up to mobilize popular support for his Ukraine policy is hardly more appealing.

It is true that 70 years ago Russian nationalism served Stalin’s totalitarianism in the righteous cause of defeating Hitler’s totalitarianism. It is also true that Russia today is as free of overt manifestations of anti-Semitism as Ukraine is, largely because Putin’s hostility to Jew-baiting is well known and duly noted.

But Putin’s implied argument that in Ukraine he is refighting WWII, with Russia once again rescuing Jews and the world from nationalist pogromists and their European (read: German/ Nazi) sponsors is simply not credible. On the contrary, his justification for seizing and occupying Crimea – the need to defend ethnic kin from a nonexistent threat – was precisely Hitler’s justification for annexing the Sudetenland.

Observers would do well, therefore, not to dredge up the past while ignoring the present. The Maidan movement, for all of the nasty antecedents of some of its participants, began as a true popular uprising against a corrupt and despotic regime supported by an expansionist Russia. Illiberal nationalism is one of the movement’s driving elements, owing to its widely shared and understandable anti-Russia appeal. And, though that nationalism may yet be directed against Ukraine’s Russians, Poles, and Jews, as it was in the past, the rest of the movement would resist such a turn (which may well explain why it has not happened).

Putin’s claim that fascists have taken control in Kyiv is fundamentally bogus, while Russia’s despicable actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine are all too real. Russia does retain some support among Russophone Ukrainians of all ethnicities, including some Jews. But Zissels is right: The battle is not about them; it is about the survival of a fledgling democratic nation-state.

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    1. CommentedSpiro V

      A fledgling democratic-nation state with a coup-imposed government asking for billion dollar loans from barely solvent more mature democratic-nation states? From a Jewish perspective, are neo-nazis really better than Russians? Is national income per capita of The Ukraine really one quarter of that of Russia? Does not The Ukraine depend on Russia for much of this income? Is this latest colour revolution really going to improve the situation in The Ukraine, or business as usual? Many unanswered questions.

    2. CommentedПарк им.XXII

      I think I can put my finger on the attitude I described below. This is exactly how Russians treat Ukrainians. How their little stupid brothers. And the older brothers need to keep the younger ones in check, older always knows what's best for younger and stupid.

      Why is that the Ukrainians who always have to prove that they are not NAZIs? Why do Russians never have to prove that? It would be interesting to see if they tried. Because they are bona fide fascists, and large chunk of them are true NAZIs. Just google for "Russian March" picture and see them throwing Zig Heil in the air. Did you see the picture of Russians burning the books in Ukrainian in Crimea? Plenty of them on the Internet as well. And the World Jewish community is absolutely silent about that. I guess Russian can buy not only EU

    3. CommentedПарк им.XXII

      Overall pretty balanced and fair article. But I would like to make a couple of clarifications
      1 You write "The OUN broke with the Nazis after they denied Ukraine independence, and finally fought the Soviets and both the army of Communist Poland and the anticommunist Polish underground after the Germans were routed"
      All true, but how come you did not mention that UPA primarily fought NAZIs? In 1942 when UPA was created, there were no Soviets to be found in Western Ukraine other than irregulars. The Kiev detachment of UPA underground where shot in Babiy Yar in January 1942, just 2 months after all Kiev Jews were murdered there (my ancestors from both sides of my family were killed there). The OUN/UPA fight against NAZIs is often omitted and the implication is that they were NAZI collaborators. This is important. And btw, there were quite a few Jews in UPA, those who ran to the forest from NAZIs. Especially medics but not only: An absolutely amazing UPA man Girsh Keller was captured by NKVD and later was in the head of a massive GULAG uprisal.

      2. Why is there always mistrust on the side of Western Jewry of what Ukrainian Jews are saying? Ukrainian Jews fought shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainian nationalists on Maidan. In fact, they themselves became Ukrainian nationalists. The transformation in me and my Jeiwsh friends was something like this: Maidan made us nationalists and Russian invasion made us Bandera followers.
      But don't take my word, take the word of the leaders of Ukrainian Jewsih community from all Ukrainian districts

      And yet, there is this constant innuendo, constant doubt from the Western Jews that Ukrainian Jews are somehow...I am lost for words..Lying? Not telling the whole truth? Or maybe they are not pure enough Jews as compared to American ones who went to cinema while Ukrainian Jews went to the ovens? This kind of attitude resembles the attitude of German and French Jews towards the Jews of Eastern Europe. Those in the East were somehow sub-Jews. Unclean and not as refined as the Western civilized Jews. You can see the same kind of condescension towards Israeli Jews as well. You know what? While in the West you are preoccupied with Barmitztvas and College for your kids, Jews in the East still have to fight for freedom and shed blood. So shove your "expertise" on being Jewish enough as deep as you can.
      Have a nice day.

    4. CommentedSimon Matthew

      You forgot to ad that the new prime minister is almost certainly of Jewish heritage. It would be strange if he was managing a cabinet of Nazis.

    5. CommentedTimothy Williamson

      Russia seems to understand far better than the west the power of symbolism and narrative. It doesn't matter whether their statements are logically consistent or even completely true, if they begin the narrative first and with lots of publicity, then they control the process. The west ends up following in the steps designed by Russia as long as they control the symbolism and narrative. The only way out is for the west to out-perform Russia in this potentially deadly stage production.