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By Konrad Putzier
Could Europe witness its first pogrom against Jews since the 1940s? As Ukraine inches closer to civil war, the country’s Jewish population is growing anxious. Late last month, a Kiev rabbi made headlines when he urged his co-religionists to leave the country. A Ukrainian-born member of the U.S. Jewish advocacy group UJA Federation recently told me that his organization is monitoring the situation in Ukraine with great concern.
Cause for the anxiety is the rise of the Right Sector, a nationalist militant group crucial to President Viktor Yanukovych’s overthrow that now appears to hold great sway over the fragile Ukrainian government. Some members of the Right Sector are overt anti-Semites. Isolated beatings of Jews around Kiev’s independence square have already been reported. This weekend, the Right Sector called for its members to mobilize against a Russian intervention. The prospect of an armed, anti-Semitic mob in a largely lawless country should give everyone cause for alarm.
To Westerners, fighting for freedom and attacking Jews seem like an anachronism. But anti-Semitism has always existed alongside the Ukrainian independence movement. Throughout the 20th century, every uprising or civil war in Ukraine was accompanied by mass murder of Jews. The parallels to today are disturbing.
The first violent struggle for Ukrainian independence took place during the Russian civil war between 1918 and 1920. Following the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, Ukrainian nationalists declared an independent Ukraine, and tried to defend it against the Red Army and White troops. Anti-Semitism was widespread at the time, and all warring parties on the territory of today’s Ukraine committed pogroms. But the nationalists of the Ukrainian Directorate were especially brutal.
Nationalist troops murdered thousands of Jews – at least partially because they associated all Jews with the hated Bolsheviks. Jews were strongly represented in the Bolshevik leadership (the commander of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, was a Jew), and nationalists often spoke of the “Jew-Bolshevik” as their enemy. Killing Jewish people was justified as a means of fighting against Bolshevik collaborators. In fact only very few Ukrainian Jews had ties to the Bolsheviks, but that did little to dispel the myth of their collaboration.
During World War II, certain Ukrainian nationalists once again targeted Jews as alleged agents of Bolshevik rule. Following the Nazi invasion in 1941, Ukrainians killed a large number of Jews in pogroms with the help and at the instigation of the Germans. The pogroms would never have happened without German encouragement, and they pale in comparison to the subsequent mass murder at the hands of SS and Wehrmacht. But they are nevertheless continuation of Ukrainian nationalist anti-Semitism.
As historian Timothy Snyder writes in his book “Bloodlands”, the Nazis were able to recruit Ukrainians en-masse because they played on the popular belief that Jews were responsible for the hated Soviet power, which had killed millions of Ukrainians through famine and terror in the 1930s.
Today’s militant Ukrainian nationalists trace their roots back to the nationalists who fought Bolshevik power during the civil war and in the 1940s. They also employ a very similar brand of anti-Semitism as some of their predecessors.
In 2004 Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda party and one of the three signatories of last month’s interim peace deal with Yanukovych (along with Vitali Klichko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk), alleged that a “Jewish-Muscovite Mafia” is ruling Ukraine. By replacing the term “Jew-Bolshevik” with “Jew-Muscovite,” Tyahnybok continued the tradition of blaming Jews for supposed Russian aggression. That Jews were attacked during the protests against Yanukovych seems to indicate that others think like him.
In 1919, 1941 and today, the suggestion that Ukraine’s Jews are somehow collaborating with Moscow is ludicrous. Moreover, then as now only a small minority of Ukrainian nationalists is anti-Semitic. But Ukraine’s history shows that a radical minority can cause devastating violence and discredit an entire freedom movement.
In many ways, the situation of Ukraine’s Jews is much more secure today than in 1919 or 1941. It is still far from clear if a civil war will break out. And even if the country succumbs to violence, Jews are less likely to suffer. Ukrainian nationalists today are far more dependent on public opinion and support from the West, and would hopefully be loath to jeopardize this by attacking Jews.
But anti-Semitism is never entirely rational, and the West needs to brace for the possibility that a few radical Ukrainian nationalists could attack Jews even if it runs counter to their own interests. To prevent this, the U.S., the E.U., and the Ukrainian government need to make it clear to Svoboda and the Right Sector that any violence against Jews will turn them into pariahs and cause them to lose any potential support. This is not only in the interest of Ukrainian Jews, but of all Ukrainians who hope for closer ties to the E.U. After all, anti-Semitic violence could discredit the Maidan revolution and do more damage to the Ukrainian struggle for independence from Moscow than Putin ever could.
Putin’s invasion of Crimea has already thrown Eastern Europe back into the dark days of 20th century imperialism. Now it is up to Western leaders to make sure anti-Semitic violence doesn’t also make its comeback.
Konrad Putzier is a New York-based journalist. He blogs at thelongerview.org.
[Photo courtesy of Sasha Maksymenko]