The headline shouted, “All citizens of Jewish nationality!” The document ordered all Jews over the age of 16 to register or face deportation, calling them “hostile to the Orthodox Donetsk Republic.”
The words stunned Jewish residents of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on the first night of Passover, when masked men carrying a Russian flag started handing out sheets with the chilling announcement to community members as they left the synagogue. “Evasion of registration,” it warned, “will result in revocation of citizenship and . . . confiscation of property.”
Was the threat real? Was it a hoax? Was it an effort to intimidate Jews, to smear pro-Russian activists?
The fliers bore the seal of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” an entity just announced by Moscow loyalists trying to break away from Ukraine’s pro-Western government in Kiev. It accused the Jews of supporting the “Junta” in Kiev, and therefore being disloyal to the Donetsk separatists. It was signed Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Donetsk “Republic,” but Pushilin denies he had anything to do with it.
Until now there is no sign that anyone intends to enforce the apparent decree. Still, it would be wrong to dismiss the incident and the flier as a meaningless forgery.
Both sides in the dispute between Ukraine and Russia have accused the other of anti-Semitism, and they have each called the other fascists. The truth is that anti-Semitism has a long history there.
It is no accident that the Jews are caught in the middle.
Jews have lived in Ukraine and Russia for more than a thousand years. After hundreds of generations, you would understand why they feel they live in their country and have a right to participate in civil life. But many in the community urged the young people to stay out of the demonstrations on either side, lest Jews become yet again the convenient scapegoats.
Many did not heed their elders’ advice and joined the protests. Still, no one is blind to the reality. Whatever the provenance of the fliers, these are tense times for members of Donetsk’s 17,000-strong Jewish community, and there is nervousness among Ukraine’s 300,000 Jews. Jews have been an integral and important part of Russia and Ukraine, producing masterpieces of literature, science, philosophy and art. But also enduring brutality.
A local rabbi said the last time he saw a message like this one was in 1941, when Nazi armies occupied Donetsk. It is painful, he told a reporter, to be used by “cynical politicians” who see Jews “as an instrument of their political games.” Secretary of State John Kerry called it “grotesque.”
It has happened before. Many times.
This is the part of the world that gave us the word “Pogrom,” the periodic riots against Jews that produced massacres, destruction of property and widespread, fear. In the 17th century, Cossacks killed thousands of Jews. Pogroms never ended. When the Nazis came, they killed some 900,000 Jews in what is Ukraine today with the help of pockets of local supporters amid widespread anti-Semitism.
The Soviet era did not bring the end of anti-Semitism. Official purges accused the Jews of disloyalty and “cosmopolitanism.”
Many Jews have sided with the new government in Kiev, joining the movement that seeks to bring an end to endemic corruption, and create a more Western-oriented Ukraine, with less meddling from Russia. Moscow has painted the new government in Kiev as dominated by anti-Semitic fascists.
It does contain a minority of nationalist extremists called the “Right Sector.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed Ukraine’s Jewish community is threatened by an upsurge of anti-Semitism, another possible excuse for Russian intervention. Jewish leaders responded saying the rise of anti-Semitism is much more noticeable in Russia than in Ukraine.
The Jews of eastern Ukraine, where the population tends to be more pro-Russian, are caught in the middle.
Jews make up less than 1 percent of Ukraine’s population, but they again find themselves forced into the center of inflammatory controversy. They don’t know why the pamphlet suddenly appeared. Who were the masked men distributing them? Were they anti-Semites, seeking to bully the Jews in the tradition of Cossacks? Were they Kiev loyalists wanting to make the Russian backers look dangerous? Was it someone trying to stir up instability?
With each side charging the other is dominated by anti-Semitic fascists, the one source of comfort is that the charge is an accusation they both deny, rather than a boast and an official source of pride.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.