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.