President Putin Has Called Ukraine a Hotbed of Anti-Semites. It's Not.

Openly anti-Semitic political candidates in today’s Ukraine are doomed at the ballot box.

Men perform a ritual cleansing in a quarry near the central Ukrainian city of Uman. The ritual bath, called a mikvah, is usually found within a synagogue. But oceans, rivers, and spring-fed pools also serve as mikvahs, because they’re believed to emanate from a divine source.


Ukraine's presidential elections this week delivered an emphatic win for Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire confectionary tycoon who triumphed over a packed field of candidates with 54 percent of the vote.

In the opinion of many Ukrainians, his victory comes not a moment too soon. They're worried that as fighting escalates between government forces and pro-Russian insurgents in the east, the country could be on the brink of a major war.

Poroshenko appealed to Ukrainians across the political spectrum, who saw in him a strong manager whose centrist policies may be able to hold the country together.

But the elections were also significant in terms of Ukraine's unity thanks to another, less reported development: Two far-right party candidates each received only around one percent of the vote.

This flew in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin's claims that Jews in Ukraine—who number between 100,000 and 300,000—are under threat and that the country is a hotbed of "fascists and anti-Semites." This was one argument Putin used to justify Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's southern region of Crimea and the pressure he continued to exert on the country.

The Ukrainian far right may be down, but it's not out. Parliamentary elections and local elections may take place fairly soon, and a presidential vote is not an entirely accurate gauge of any movement's popularity.

Furthermore, turmoil in the country's east has given a foothold to ethnic Russian extremists, some of whom have been outspoken in their anti-Semitism.

In Uman, Jewish men gather near the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of the great sages of the Hasidic movement, who died in 1810. Every year tens of thousands of Jews make a pilgrimage here at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, hoping to receive his blessing from beyond the grave.


Register or Be Deported

On a warm spring evening in April, members of a synagogue in the eastern city of Donetsk received some surprise visitors as they were leaving after Passover seder. Three men in camouflage, their faces concealed by balaclavas, materialized, passed out a stack of flyers, then melted away.

Although the strangers were said to have performed their job "politely," the congregants' astonishment turned into concern when they read the message on the handouts.

It was a decree, allegedly signed by Denis Pushilin, the self-declared head of the pro-Russian separatist "republic" in Donetsk, requiring all local Jews to register with authorities, pay a tax, and provide a family history—or face deportation.

The words "registration" and "deportation," with their echoes of the Holocaust, struck an international nerve. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the leaflets' distribution, and numerous media outlets devoted coverage to it.

But there was a problem: Pushilin denied having anything to do with the handouts, and the location listed as the place to register was an empty room. The true identity of the flyers' authors remains a mystery.

An abandoned synagogue in Zhovkva, in western Ukraine, which was once a hub of Jewish life, is considered a fine example of late Jewish Renaissance architecture. During World War II, the Nazis destroyed the interior.


Political Poison

Anti-Semitism is something Ukrainians on either side of the political divide accuse their enemies of, but it's a label they themselves assiduously avoid. Jew baiting is political poison—openly anti-Semitic candidates are repeatedly punished at the ballot box.

That this is the reality in Ukraine, a place with a tragic Jewish past, is perhaps paradoxical. But Ukraine is a different country today.

This new Ukraine was on display during the recent mass antigovernment protests that ended the brutal, kleptocratic government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Members of right-wing groups were among the core activists occupying Kiev's central square, the Maidan. For the most part, they refrained from any controversial language. They even made a concerted effort to reach out to Jews, who were enthusiastic supporters of the movement.

Right Sector, an organization made up of ultranationalist and extremist groups (a couple of them bordering on being neofascist), conducted a "rescue mission," in which the car of the group's leader, Dmytro Yarosh, was used to evacuate the family of an Israeli citizen from fighting in Ukraine's east. They also helped remove anti-Jewish graffiti from a synagogue's walls and met with the Israeli ambassador in Kiev.

This kind of thing could be sincere. Or, of course, it could be good public relations, because Right Sector wants to appeal to as wide a cross section of Ukrainians as possible.

And it's not to say that anti-Semitism is absent from Right Sector. (During a recent train ride, I found myself sitting next to one of the group's more extremist members, who painstakingly explained to me the difference between "Jews" and "kikes.")

But Right Sector's Jewish outreach stands in sharp contrast to the attitudes of ultranationalist parties in neighboring countries, such as Greece's Golden Dawn and Hungary's Jobbik, which are openly hostile to Jews.

"The Ukrainian radical right is now in a clear and open struggle," said Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Jewish-Ukrainian expert on the far right. "Their enemy is not Jews, but Russia and pro-Russian supporters and activists in Ukraine."

Denis Pushilin may not have been behind the flyers distributed at the Donetsk synagogue, but a number of pro-Russian members of his circle could have been.

Russian far-right groups such as Russian National Unity and the Eurasian Youth Union are active in the separatist cause, and Pavel Gubarev, the self-declared "peoples' governor" of Donetsk is a former neo-Nazi.

"I think there is more of a threat of anti-Semitic provocations from the side of the Kremlin," Likhachev said.

Jewish men in Zhytomyr, 80 miles east of Kiev, read from the Torah. The men wear prayer shawls, or tallit, and on their heads and left arms, tefillin, or phylacteries, boxes containing a holy prayer.


Not One Long Pogrom

Jews first came in large numbers to what is now Ukraine during the Middle Ages. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to which Ukraine belonged, welcomed Jews, providing them with relative security and granting them a high level of autonomy.

Popular culture often depicts the Jewish experience in Ukraine as one long pogrom. It wasn't. Jewish life flowered, and the community expanded. Jews, Ukrainians, Poles, and many others engaged each other in a lively daily give-and-take.

But there was friction. Jews and Ukrainians lived next to each other but were divided by religion, economic circumstances, and social position. The Ukrainians were overwhelmingly people of the land. The Jews lived in the cities and towns, brought there by Polish nobility, for whom they often served as agents in the Poles' absence.

Friction sometimes exploded into violence. During the 1600s Ukrainian Cossacks, peasants who'd escaped servitude and set up free communities along the banks of the Dnieper River, killed anybody associated with their hated Polish overlords. Tens of thousands, including entire communities of Jews, perished in what have been called the worst Jewish massacres before the Shoah, as Jews refer to the Holocaust.

During the 1700s, Russia absorbed part of Poland, and the Jews' circumstances  deteriorated. Tsarist authorities blamed them for the empire's problems and organized pogroms against them. After Tsar Nicholas II fell in 1917, all sides in Russia's civil war, including armies linked to Ukraine's first independent government, targeted Jews.

Students follow their dance instructor during a class at a Jewish school in the port city of Odessa on Ukraine's Black Sea coast.


Unhealed Wound

The cataclysm came in June 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and systematically exterminated about two-thirds of Ukraine's Jews, who had numbered about 2.4 million.

The horrors of World War II left an unhealed wound in Jewish-Ukrainian relations. A number of Ukrainians had collaborated: According to German historian Dieter Pohl, around 100,000 joined police units that provided key assistance to the Nazis.

Many others staffed the local bureaucracies or lent a helping hand during mass shootings of Jews. Ukrainians, such as the infamous Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, were also among the guards who manned the Nazi death camps.

During the past two decades, Western and Ukrainian historians have uncovered wartime atrocities by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA, according to its Ukrainian acronym), two groups that fought for Ukrainian independence.

At the start of the war, the OUN strove to establish an ethnically pure Ukrainian state allied with Nazi Germany, and when the Axis powers invaded the Soviet Union, it helped organize pogroms against Jews.

The UPA, which the OUN dominated, hunted down Jews who'd hidden in the forests and, as the war was ending, murdered those who were working for it.

"Jews in hiding in Volhynia saw the UPA as a threat," said Ray Brandon, co-editor of The Shoah in Ukraine, a collection of essays by experts in the field. "This fear features regularly in the testimonies of Holocaust survivors."

But assigning collective guilt would be a gross injustice to Ukrainians. Collaboration with the Nazis was rife throughout Europe. Anti-Semitic attitudes were indeed common among Ukrainians, but many weren't anti-Semites, and the number who didn't assist the Nazis was much, much greater.

Moreover, a significant number risked their lives to shield Jews. Ukrainians are the fourth largest group listed among Yad Vashem's "Righteous Among the Nations."

Millions of Ukrainians in the Red Army also fought the Nazis, and many of them helped liberate the concentration and death camps.

And the Ukrainians themselves suffered horrific losses—millions of dead at the hands of both the Germans and the Soviets, and untold numbers jailed, deported, or subjected to forced labor.

An Orthodox Jewish man in Kiev walks past a sukkah, a temporary shelter erected during Sukkoth, an autumn harvest festival just after the Jewish New Year.


Empty Spaces

In Lviv, in western Ukraine, Hebrew script can still be discerned under the paint on some shop fronts, and some entrances to buildings still have indentations above the door frames where Jews placed their mezuzahs, little religious boxes containing prayers.

Lviv was at the epicenter of the Holocaust. At the turn of the 20th century, Jews made up a third of the city's population; today they number around 1,200. About 95 percent of the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Galicia, the region where Lviv is located, were slaughtered during the war.

Lviv is a city of ghosts—but a delightful one, brimming with Hapsburg charm. The brutality of its past is hard to reconcile with the beauty of its architecture.

It's also a place that appears somewhat ambivalent about its Jewish heritage. As is true throughout Galicia, where many towns had Jewish majorities, little evidence remains to show that Jews once lived—or were murdered—there. Cemeteries destroyed by the Nazis are overgrown with weeds or have disappeared into the landscape. Synagogues are crumbling and empty.

Yevhen Polyakov, a Jewish studies researcher at Lviv's Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, said one should not necessarily read hostility into Ukrainians' indifference to their onetime Jewish neighbors.

"People were told what to do, how to work, what to read, and so forth," Polyakov said. "They were used to information flowing from above."

At the same time, he continued, ethnic Ukrainians have been preoccupied with their own story. Ukraine was always dominated by outside powers: Russia, Poland, Austria-Hungary. Now Ukrainians have achieved their long-cherished goal of statehood, for which they fought bitterly, and they want to establish their own national narrative.

The problem is that this process often excludes the numerous ethnic groups—Poles, Russians, Greeks, Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Tatars, as well as Jews—who have shared their land and contributed to Ukraine's development.

Indeed, what would be viewed as anti-Semitism in the West is often the result in Ukraine of obliviousness.

An instance of that can be found in the popular Under the Golden Rose restaurant in Lviv, which professes to "celebrate" Lviv's Jewish past. The restaurant occupies the site of the city's former main synagogue, the Golden Rose, which was blown up by the Nazis.

The restaurant's walls are decorated with black-and-white photos of Lviv and Galicia's Jewish past. Diners can order staples such as gefilte fish and chopped liver and be photographed in Hasidic garb—a black hat with artificial sidelocks. At the end of their meal, they're presented with an inflated bill, which they then must haggle over to reduce the price. Many Ukrainians truly don't understand why this is offensive.

Facts Count

For Josef Zissels, head of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, who monitors anti-Semitism, such examples are irrelevant. "What's important," he said, "are facts, and facts are actual anti-Semitic incidents—hate speech, attacks, vandalism.

By that yardstick, Zissels said, Ukraine is one of the least anti-Semitic countries in Europe: 13 anti-Semitic incidents last year, compared with 1,300 in Germany and 560 in France. This disparity could stem in part from a difference in perception of what constitutes anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, it seems that Ukraine, post revolution, isn't a bad place for Jews.

Above all, what seems to characterize Jewish life in Ukraine at this moment is a sense of hope.

The Maidan movement, in which a number of Jews were passionate participants, was not just about eradicating corruption and building democratic institutions. For many Ukrainians, it was about creating a new sense of national identity, one based on citizenship, not ethnicity.

While I was in Lviv, I met some young Jewish residents of the city—over pizza and Cokes—who said there'd been a noticeable transformation in Ukrainian society in recent years.

"People are starting to talk about the Holocaust, take an interest in Jewish things," said Olexander Nazar, the head of Lviv's Sholem Aleichem Society for Jewish Culture, who had just taken part in a Days of Yiddish and Jewish Culture festival. "It's just the beginning, but things are changing, like when molecules start to bump up against each other."

"We're patriots of our country," Nazar said.

David Stern is an independent journalist based in Kiev, where he's lived for more than five years.