Russia continues its false narrative as defender of oppressed minorities in Ukraine
Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Rabbi Berel Lazar
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s latest allegations regarding minority rights in Ukraine have avoided the Kremlin’s customary accusations of rampant anti-Semitism. This was probably wise, coming just a day after a full-page statement from a number of prominent Ukrainian Jewish figures was posted in major US, Canadian and Israeli newspapers. The statement accuses Vladimir Putin of spreading lies about the treatment of minorities, including Jews, in Ukraine. It points out that “the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine are not being humiliated or discriminated against, their civil rights have not been limited.” It suggests that since Putin’s claims of an increase in anti-Semitism in Ukraine are at odds with the facts, he is perhaps confusing Ukraine with Russia where such a trend has been recorded.
Rebuttal of the Russian propaganda is nothing new. Ukraine’s leading rabbis, Jewish organizations, researchers monitoring anti-Semitism and xenophobia and many others have repeatedly denied all such claims both with respect to the Maidan protests and to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. They were forced to reiterate their position in the New York Times and its international version, Israel’s Haaretz and Canada’s National Post because of the public statements made by Russia’s Chief Rabbi, Berel Lazar on March 24. Lazar criticized the Ukrainian Jewish community, including Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Jacob Dov Bleich for calling for an end to Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine. He claimed that the Jewish community should not be meddling in issues that, in his opinion, did not directly concern the Jewish community. He also, however, said that he was concerned about anti-Semitism in Ukraine under its interim government.
The argument that this is not the Jewish community’s business is clearly untenable. Putin justified military intervention on the grounds of purported infringements of the rights of Russian nationals, Russian speakers and “anti-Semitic mobs” under the interim government.
It is extremely easy to fabricate “anti-Semitic attacks” if they suit ones narrative. Since the only anti-Semitic vandalism in Simferopol occurred after Russian military forces seized control, there are practical reasons for disputing the claims about an “anti-Semitic threat”, not to mention those of a moral nature. There are also the compelling arguments presented by disrupted lives. Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin, for example, has been forced to leave the Crimea following his strong denial of Russian claims and criticism of the intervention.
Lazar has claimed that Ukrainian Jewish leaders don’t feel free to decry anti-Semitic acts. Viacheslav Likhachev from the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress who has monitored anti-Semitism in Ukraine for the last 10 years responds that it is Lazar who is not able to speak freely and who must go along with the Kremlin line.
The Jewish leaders who are supposedly fearful of telling it how the Kremlin says it is are certainly proactive – and united – in presenting a different point of view, one that corresponds to monitoring reports. The Jewish Chronicle Online reports conversations with Ukrainian businessmen, like Gennady Bogolyubov, who will not only support Ukraine’s war effort if Russia invades the mainland, but will personally take up arms against the aggressor.
Russia’s claim that it is defending national minorities are, in short, finding little understanding among those minorities. Its allegations about the interim government in Kyiv and about its reasons for military intervention have been just as strongly rejected by the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People; by the authoritative Congress of National Communities and others.
The calculation is presumably that Russian channels will not report the inconvenient exposures of Kremlin lies and that faced with a choice between sensational reports and having to report that there’s little or nothing to say, many western media channels will opt for sensation.
Confident, therefore, that the Foreign Ministry will not be asked to substantiate its claims, the latter repeats the standard line about the interests of Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine being ignored, citing the one fact in the entire statement, namely the removal from air of four Russian TV channels. One can theorize about freedom of speech, however these channels are provably churning out lies, distortions and other forms of propaganda in conditions of the gravest danger to Ukraine’s territorial integrity from a military invader. In conditions of war, many western countries have not proven more tolerant.
The ministry claims that the situation is “no less dramatic” for ethnic Germans, Czechs, Hungarians and other national minorities. “They are concerned about the instability of the political situation in the country and seriously frightened for their lives, directly encountering those outrages which home-grown extreme nationalists and neo-fascists are continuing to commit. As a result of this in recent times there has been a significant increase in the number of people wishing to temporarily or permanently return to their historical homeland. More and more residents of Ukraine are seeking refuge in Russia as well.”
Prove it. The onus must be on those making such allegations to substantiate them. Not via one or two, say, Hungarians willing to tell horror stories and plaintively ask for Russian “protection” on TV Russia Today, but through hard facts.
At the present time, large numbers of Crimeans are leaving for the Ukrainian mainland, many believing themselves and their families to be in danger. Numerous cases of aggression against Ukrainian-speakers, Crimean Tatars or others in the Crimea who speak out against the Russian annexation have been reported by Human Rights Watch and other international organizations. The first person killed in the Crimea, Reshat Ametov, was abducted while protesting silently against the Russian invasion. From May 9 it will be a criminal offence with a conceivable sentence of up to 5 years to call for Russian withdrawal and restoration of the Crimea as part of Ukraine. Infringements of the rights of Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians and those Russians in the Crimea who do not support Russian invention can be proven.
It certainly doesn’t look good to say that you’ve annexed another country’s territory because you wanted it. Or that you’re amassing troops on that country’s border trying to decide if you can get away with grabbing more. That, however, is the truth unlike the endless barrage of lies about anti-Semitism and discrimination.