How to help Ukraine’s Jews

How to help Ukraine’s Jews

It seems every week for the past few months, the end of Shabbat has brought me more disturbing and tumultuous news regarding the situation in Ukraine.

Last week, however, the object of my disaffection was an announcement for a rally to be held on erev Yom Hashoah, purportedly a counter to recent acts of anti-Semitism that have occurred in Ukraine. Rabbi Zev Friedman, the organizer, said that “Ukraine needs to aggressively condemn all acts of anti-Semitism taking place in their country and issue a public statement of their resolve to protect the Jewish community.” If Rabbi Friedman had been paying any real attention, he would know it already has.

Rabbi Friedman’s attitude – acting first and understanding later -unfortunately has pervaded much of the discourse in the organized Jewish world in response to recent events. Reactionary politics are leading to unwarranted, uninformed, and dangerous responses to what is a fluid and changing situation. As someone who spent three and a half years in Ukraine, been there as recently as last month, and is in constant contact with many members of the Jewish community in Ukraine, I can tell you this: The best thing we can do for Ukraine’s Jews is to promote a free, independent, and secure Ukraine.

These gut responses were on no greater display than about two weeks ago, when, during the Passover holiday, disgusting fliers were distributed outside the synagogue in Donetsk ordering Jews to register with the pro-Russian separatist militias that had wrested control of the city. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “acknowledged” the existence of the fliers, and his lack of attention to nuance led many major news organizations to report that Jews were being forced to register. What they failed to report is that more likely than not it was a few guys in their apartment who printed the fake flier off a bootleg version of Microsoft Word.

Which side these provocateurs support in this bloody mess is unclear, but they were undoubtedly successful in their desire to cause an uproar among global Jewry.

In fact, the current Ukrainian government likely has been the most pro-Jewish government Ukraine has ever seen. An identifying Jew, whose father lives in Israel, is the deputy prime minister. Two Jews have been named interim governors of troubled eastern regions. And the leaders of a plethora of Ukrainian-Jewish organizations have signed a series of letters in support of the government and against the moves Putin has taken to destabilize the country and strike fear into the heart of its Jewish population.

This is not to say, of course, that there is no anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Svoboda, one of the nationalist Ukrainian parties involved in the recent protests, is led by people who have made anti-Semitic statements in the past. Its right-wing breakaway, known as Right Sector, is seen as even more extreme. And the motto of the movement, “Glory to Ukraine, Glory to its heroes,” is a slogan often linked with Stepan Bandera, the leader of a Ukrainian nationalist army during World War II that collaborated with the Nazis and has been implicated in the participation of many pogroms during the Holocaust.

But in the most recent presidential polls, the candidates from these parties are polling in the single digits. And it was a group of Jews, whose leader wears a kippah and attends synagogue regularly, that formed a self-defense group admired by its Ukrainian peers during the protests. It was a group of Ukrainians that offered to help protect the synagogue during the most tumultuous days in February. And the term now being used to refer to Jewish supporters of the Ukraine movement is Zhidobanderovist, or Yid-Banderite, a seeming contradiction that was unthinkable until a few months ago.

Because when faced with a decision between drifting toward Europe or toward Putin, the Jews of Ukraine, like the majority of the people in their country, choose the West. When old-school Soviet tactics of propaganda, political repression, and violence are used, the Jews of Ukraine refuse to be pawns in Russia’s machinations. When a flier is handed out in the street or a flaming bottle is thrown at a synagogue, it is vigilance and cooperation which will strengthen the Jews of Ukraine, not hysteria and ignorance.

And when rabbis organize rallies outside the Ukrainian consulate in New York without a real understanding of the issues, they are playing into Putin’s hand. When people report rumors without investigating the facts, they are falling for the same tricks. When we forget that it was the Russian Empire that first concocted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, we allow our historical memory to fade. For the Jews of Ukraine overwhelmingly stood in the square, in defiance of Putin, in defiance of tyranny.

Stand with the Jews of Ukraine. Just make sure you are standing on the same side.

Reprinted with permission from the Times of Israel