Our man in Kiev

Our man in Kiev

Ukrainian protests are not anti-Semitic, local student says

JERUSALEM – I wanted to throw the paper in the garbage as soon as my friend showed it to me.

“Come home, Ukrainian Jews,” read the editorial in the Jerusalem Post. I think what bothered me most (other than misappropriating the timing of certain quotes and failing to give backgrounds on a few of the key players) was that I felt that the newspaper’s editorial writers, like everyone else, were simplifying the conflict.

Jeremy Borovitz is a close observer of events in Ukraine.

I first arrived in Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer in March 2010, and it killed me to watch others ignore the complexities of the conflict: they say that it is East versus West, and they are all a bunch of anti-Semites, and it is a coup d’etat committed by a bunch of ragtag neo-Nazis. Amen, sela.

It is about East vs. West, they say. The country is split. The western half of Ukraine, they tell you, strives to be a part of Europe. It is full of Ukrainian nationalists who disdain other nationalities. Meanwhile, the industrial East, they claim, is Russian at heart, with not a Ukrainophile to be found.

But this narrative didn’t really fit Serhiy Nihoyan, a 20-year-old ethnic Armenian who was from Dnieperpetrovsk, one of the largest cities in the East. Serhiy was one of the earliest protestors to come to the square – and he also was one of its first fatalities. His face became a symbol of the movement. His image was plastered on pamphlets and across Facebook, a dark and bearded face that became an emblem of a Ukrainian revolution.

“It’s run by the anti-Semites.” That’s the mantra they’ve been giving us. “A pogrom is just around the corner.” Or, as one of the chief rabbis of Ukraine said recently, “all Jews should leave.” But how does that explain the religious zealot and lover of Jabotinsky, who has been clad in camouflage and a bulletproof vest for a month, fighting for a free country, standing next to Ukrainians, with his tzitzit out and his kippah on, there for all to see?

And what about the Jewish professor and intellectual, staunch defender of Israel to all naysayers, who has risen to become one of the philosophical pillars of the protest movement?

Or the young Jewish girl whose beautiful poetry and prose has helped keep the fires in their souls alive?

Or the young Jewish professional who has been volunteering at medical clinics on back-to-back-to-back nights?

How do I explain that the attacks against Jews have been terrible, but that these are isolated instances in a swarm of violence? How do I convey that the recent firebombing of the synagogue in Zaporyzhya is a drop in the despicable bucket that also has left Kiev’s city center blanketed in ashes?

For a hundred have died and thousands have been injured and dozens of buildings already have been burned. The country mourns its dead and supports its injured and the vast majority abhor the violence, yet we see it as a plot against our people.

It’s a mess, they report, a bunch of militiamen flailing their guns wildly. But EuroMaidan is the best run Ukrainian operation I’ve ever seen. Named after the square in which it takes place (Maidan means square in Ukrainian), on my first visit there last December I was shocked by how orderly everything seemed. There were places for meals and places for warm clothes and places to sleep and places to heal. And last week, when the call went out over social networking that the square was under attack, the people of Kiev and of Ukraine came out in droves. All religions, all peoples, all ages, all political affiliations and languages descended on the square, with medicine and food and blankets and cameras and sometimes with clubs and shields.

When the dust settled after the darkest Thursday most of them will ever see, they continued fighting, organizing, building barricades, and mourning their fallen friends.

Saturday was bittersweet, because the cost of throwing off the yolks of tyrannical rule was so high. And as the terrible truths of the past few years were uncovered, the mansions with golden yachts displayed, and the emptiness of the country’s coffers became a reality, the momentary ecstasy disappeared. And so, on the square and in the Parliament and at the cemeteries Ukrainians and Armenians and Jews and Russians will continue to build, and create, and mourn.

These people have bled beside each other the last few months, and it is up to them to stay or to go.

And it is likely that they will stay. They will stay to build a stronger Ukraine, a better Jewish community, and a peaceful square.

Please pray for the people of Ukraine.

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