ODESSA, Ukraine — In early April, swastikas and “Death to the Jews” were painted on walls surrounding the Jewish cemetery in this legendary city on the Black Sea. The graffiti was signed “Right Sector,” the name of an ultranationalist movement that took part in the February revolt that ousted the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
The Kremlin claims that Ukraine’s rebels — who want the country to turn toward Europe rather than Russia — are riddled with anti-Semites and neofascists. The desecration in Odessa seems to fit those charges. But what I heard from Avram Wolff, Odessa’s chief rabbi — and from Jews from all over Ukraine — contradicts Moscow’s propaganda machine.
Wolff told me that a top Right Sector leader quickly came to his office and denied the group’s involvement. “I asked him to prove it by painting over the graffiti,” the rabbi told me in his book-lined office. Soon the militiaman, wearing his fatigues with a neofascist shoulder patch, was standing shoulder to shoulder with the bearded Chabad-Lubavitcher rabbi erasing the swastikas.
Odessa, whose huge Jewish population was decimated during World War II, is still home to 40,000 Jews and three synagogues; Wolff runs an active congregation, including schools, orphanages and a university, and a newsletter distributed to 15,000 families. “To say there is no anti-semitism in Ukraine is not accurate, because there is anti-semitism everywhere,” says Wolff. “Jews had no real problems, maybe the occasional incident, before the current conflict.”
“In this conflict,” he adds, “there is no involvement of anti-Semitism. This is strictly between Ukraine and Russia.”
He believes that pro-Russian provocateurs, like the ones he thinks scrawled the graffiti, seek to frighten Jews into asking Russia for help, thus confirming the Kremlin’s charges. (Jewish leaders also blame the few other recent anti-Semitic incidents on provocateurs.)
The Russian message resonates in some circles because of the role Right Sector, and Ukraine’s far-right nationalist party Svoboda, played in the Euromaidan revolt and the handful of posts they got in the current interim government.
But Russia grossly exaggerates the role of both groups, according to Josef Zissels, the chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities in Ukraine. “Every society has right-wing people,” he says. “The question is, what is their strength in society, and what is the mainstream?”
This week’s Ukrainian presidential election gave a clear answer: The Right Sector candidate, Dmitry Yarosh, won 1 percent of the vote; Oleh Tyahnybok of Svoboda received 1.3 percent. Neither did as well as Jewish businessman Vadim Rabinovich, with 2 percent. Compare that with French and British votes for ultranationalist parties in Sunday’s European Parliament elections, respectively 25 and 27 percent.
Moreover, Ukrainians of Jewish descent hold critical government posts, including Volodymyr Groysman, 37, a vice prime minister who is designing the critical plan to devolve more power to the regions. When I asked him about Russian claims of anti-semitism in the government, he gave a disgusted look and shot back: “That’s a perfect example of black is white and white is black.”
I heard the same complaints about Russian propaganda from Jewish activists in the Euromaidan revolution, who noted that anti-semitism in Russia is much more blatant than in Ukraine. Jewish journalist Andrei Mysh of Donetsk told me the only anti-semitism that disturbed him was the rhetoric of local pro-Russian separatists and the language on Russian TV.
Of course, much of the reason why Russian claims find receptive ears lies with history. My grandparents, who fled Ukraine when it was ruled by the tsars, told me stories of pogroms. Ukraine’s nationalist hero Stepan Bandera allied with the Nazis in the struggle to win independence from the Soviet Union (he was ultimately sent to a German concentration camp). This was after dictator Josef Stalin had deliberately starved millions of Ukrainian peasants to death in the 1930s.
Some Ukrainian nationalists and police took part in anti-Jewish pogroms during World War II. (Was that the case, I wonder, when the Germans killed 3,000 Jews from my grandmother’s town of Mezritch near Rovno, in August 1942 — something I learned about for the first time from Rabbi Wolff — or might Ukrainians have helped save the 100 survivors?)
But that was then. Today’s Ukraine is a very different place.
It’s a place where Ihor Shchupak heads a Department of Holocaust studies at the Jewish Museum and a huge Jewish community center in Dnipropetrovsk, and lectures to university and high school teachers all over Ukraine. And, oh yes, the very successful governor of Dnipropetrovsk, Ihor Kolomoisky, is also of Jewish descent.
It’s a place where preconceptions about anti-semitism confront a reality that is oh-so-different. On a Saturday night in the lovely City Park in Odessa, filled with open-air cafes around a bandstand, a singer was belting out Hava Nagila, while elderly Jewish (and non-Jewish) ladies danced to the music. It could have been Brooklyn. When it comes to Jewish life in Ukraine, things are not what you expect.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
©2014 Trudy Rubin