One of Ukraine’s most prominent Jewish leaders dismissed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reasoning for Moscow-backed militiamen taking over the region as “ridiculous” ahead of Sunday’s referendum on the future of Crimea.
“What is out biggest concern?” Putin asked a March 3 news conference, shortly after the pro-Russia forces started seeping into Ukraine. “We see the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.”
However, the President of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee Eduard Dolinsky said that the community did “not feel any specific threat at this moment. And we can solve any issues inside our country in dialogue with all political forces peacefully.”
“We are very skeptical of Mr. Putin’s assertion that he is coming to fight fascism and anti-Semitism” in Ukraine, he added.
“It’s ridiculous. We don’t need protection from fascists," said Dolinsky. "We were shocked when he used this as an excuse for the invasion. This is absolutely unacceptable.”
Crimeans will head to the polls on Sunday to vote in a referendum to decide if they want their autonomous republic to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, but Dolinsky questioned the validity of any result.
“This is a pure military invasion, which breaks all the rules,” he said. “Any vote with guns pointed at people cannot be fair.”
History gives some reason for fear
That said, Dolinsky said Jews in Ukraine are concerned by the presence of ultra-nationalist groups like Svoboda and Pravyi (Right) Sector holding roles in the new government.
In the days leading up to former President Viktor Yanukovich's ouster, the balaclava-clad followers from both parties fought fierce battles with police on the streets of Kiev, earning for Right Sector in particular, a reputation as shadowy extremists kept at arm's length by other opponents of the Moscow-backed leader.
Svoboda members now hold five senior roles in Ukraine's new government, including the post of deputy prime minister, and Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh is now the country's deputy secretary of national security.
“We were worried that our synagogues and schools could become targets based on Ukrainian history,” Dolinsky said. “But apart from a few isolated incidents this has not happened.”
It is recent 20th century history that may well be making the Jewish community nervous about the current situation in the country, according to Yale University historian, Prof. Timothy Snyder.
“All of the bad things that have happened to Jews in Ukraine have happened during times of armed intervention and state collapse,” he said, citing the death of more than 1 million Jews killed in the country during the Holocaust and tens of thousands killed during the pogroms at the end of the Russian civil war in 1922.
“Both of them happened at a time of military occupation and state destruction. So, one thing to keep in mind is the Jews in Ukraine [today] have no reason for anyone to invade the country, regardless of who that might be, because it’s a breakdown in the state which is the most dangerous thing for them,” Snyder said.
Now that the revolution has taken place, Snyder said that what the Jewish community probably wants most is stability.
“The Russian policy of sending mercenaries into Crimea is intended to destabilize the current government and it occurs to me that Jews might be the first to sense the danger in that,” he said.
'Muddies the waters'
To a certain extent however, Putin’s claims have sowed doubt about Ukraine’s new regime in some quarters of the Jewish community and society at large, according to Prof. David Fishman at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“It muddies the waters about who the West is supporting,” he said. “Putin's policy is based on the assumption that Jews are well-represented in the opinion-making elite of the U.S., and that the European Union is deeply sensitive to Holocaust memory, xenophobia and racism. When isolated incidents of anti-Semitism are blown up, it creates concerns.
“While you could use a lot of terrible words to describe the Putin regime, like undemocratic and illiberal, it is not anti-Semitic,” he added. “It is suppressing all of society equally. So it is not suppressing Jews more than anyone else.”
Whatever threats, both perceived and imaginary, are made against the Jewish community, Dolinsky said that it's something for the Ukrainian people to work out.
“The people of this country are civilized people,” he said. “They have to fight against xenophobia in the Ukraine. We sincerely believe that anti-Semitism is the business of Ukrainians and Ukrainians alone.”
Reuters contributed to this report.