Chief Rabbi and others dismiss Putin’s “anti-Semitic extremist” claims
Rabbi Dov Bleich
It is not only political figures who have debunked the Kremlin’s explanation for its behaviour in recent days, but also those supposedly needing Russian ‘protection’ from anti-Semitic extremists in Ukraine.
At a press conference in New York on March 4, reported by the Voice of America Russian Service, the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, Yaacov Dov Bleich stated that despite the persistent claims in the Russian media, anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine are extremely infrequent.
The message could not have been more timely, coinciding as it did with Vladimir Putin;s assertion that Russia’s main concern was “the orgy of nationalists, extremists and anti-Semites on the streets of Kyiv”.
With respect to the Crimea, Rabii Bleich pointed out that during the last 20 years Jewish people in the Crimea had lived peacefully, and that the first act of anti-Semitic vandalism had taken place a couple of days after Russian troops were deployed on the peninsula (details of the incident here).
“We are expecting provocation. We anticipate that the Russians will want to justify their invasion of Ukraine. They are already claiming in the media that Bandera supports are running about and attacking synagogues, yet none of this is happening. There could be provocation – somebody may dress up as a Ukrainian nationalist and start beating up Jewish people. I am not afraid to draw such an analogy - this is what the Nazis did during the Austrian Anschluss.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz on March 3 also reported the anti-Semitic vandalism and the words of Rabbi Misha Kapustin that he “couldn’t discount the possibility that the attack had been carried out to smear the Ukrainian government.”
Rabbi Kapustin has initiated a petition against Russian occupation and says: ““Many here are against the Russians but are afraid to talk. I am a Ukrainian citizen and want to live in democratic Ukraine. The government has always provided protection for the Jews, and all the talk of anti-Semitism is exaggerated. The Russians have invaded illegally and that must be opposed. So far, people have encouraged me and I don’t believe my petition will cause any harm to the Jews.”
The same article mentions that Rabbi Bleich joined other religious leaders in signing an open letter calling upon Russia to “stop its aggression against Ukraine” and withdraw its army from Crimea.
The letter can be read in full at the above hyperlink, unlike the “other information” which the Voice of America Russia Service report cites. This goes on to say that on the other hand “some Israeli media, for example, the liberal newspaper “Haaretz” report that for Jews the situation in Ukraine is not really so peaceful”. It then apparently quotes a report in Haaretz saying that the main problem is the present of ultra-nationalist movements such as “Svoboda” and Pravy Sektor and makes claims about their radicalism, use of an offensive term for Jew, and “demonstrations under neo-Nazi flags”
The following from the anonymous report in Haaretz multiplies the dangerous anonymity: “There have been reports that newly published copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have been distributed on Maidan.”
The same report goes on to mention the Russian media reports that leader of Pravy Sektor had asked Chechen militant leader Doku Umarov for help. The Voice of America report asserts (without providing evidence) that Yarosh first confirmed the report. As reported, Pravy Sektor has denied that such an appeal was madeAs reported, Pravy Sektor has denied that such an appeal was made. “Yarosh is a popular charismatic leader of the radical and armed group. Some even predict that he will become president.”
At this alarming point, Voice of America fortunately returns to Rabbi Bleich who confirms that certain ministerial appointments in the new government are of concern, and that “VO Svoboda in 2004 made anti-Semitic statements, now it doesn’t. “
In a normal situation, he says, we would be speaking about this, but that they have received assurances from Oleksandr Turchynov, Arseny Yatsenyuk and Vitaly Klitschko that there is nothing to fear. He adds that the Russian media exaggerate everything and that the Russian invasion is their greatest danger.
Many of us have issues, including with respect to some of the ministerial appointments and VO Svoboda initiatives and may need to address them. In the current situation, however, the position taken by Ukraines Chief Rabbi can only be endorsed.
The Russian media, and often the Kremlin, have played a major role in spreading certain stereotypes and inaccurate information, most especially about far-right groups and supposedly rampant anti-Semitism. Reports which cannot be easily checked and that claim to be citing a number of unidentifiable “reports” may not be deliberately aimed at misleading the public but they achieve the same effect. When claims without a scrap of hard evidence are used by the president of a major power as excuse for effectively invading another country’s territory, their danger seems all too apparent.