Tense confusion. That may be the best way to describe the present situation in Ukraine. On February 28, unmarked troops swept into several key energy and transport centers in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula bordering Russia. As I write this article, tensions are high and Crimea has held a referendum to rejoin Russia, a move deemed “a violation of international law” by the West.
When asked about the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin initially responded that those were not Russian soldiers at all but “pro-Russian local selfdefense forces.” However, one soldier was caught by a CNN cameraman admitting he was Russian. I guess “local” is a relative term (Russia is a big place), but you would expect that soldiers of the former Soviet Union would be a bit more tight-lipped.
But there’s another dispute that caught my attention. In his first press conference since the conflict, Putin maintained that he has the right to use force in Ukraine and defend civilians against “nationalists” and “anti-Semites,” referring to the swastikas he saw on some protesters. In the secular press, Putin has been hailed by some for exposing this trend of neo-Nazism that is picking up steam across Europe. However, some Jewish leaders, including Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, have dismissed these claims as Putin’s cover for a land grab. Others, such as legislator Aleksandr Feldman, say that there are racist elements in the interim government, and they appeal to the new leaders to steer clear of such factions.
It’s hard to call these elements insignificant minorities. Take Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the Svodoba Party, which just picked up key positions in the new Ukrainian cabinet. Tyahnybok is a rabid Jew-hater whose actions have included traveling to Germany to defend convicted SS guard John Demjanjuk as a hero. Svodoba is also allied with Jobbik, a nationalist party in Hungary, and other neo-Nazi European groups.
It’s tough to get the whole picture in such a situation. The first thing to bear in mind is the Mishnah’s teaching: Do not have faith in government officials because they manipulate the public for their own purposes and then abandon their allegiances.
But in the Ukraine, there is a greater history of backstabbing the Jews. During World War II, as the Nazi blitzkrieg neared Crimea, most Jews fled eastward, some joining the Red Army. Those who remained behind were brutally murdered by the Nazis, with the enthusiastic help of many Ukrainians.
Meanwhile, in Russia, a group of Jewish writers and actors formed the Soviet Jewish Antifascist Committee in support of Stalin’s efforts against Hitler, ym”s. Stalin selected two of its members, Solomon Mikhoels and Itzik Fefer, to travel to the Allied countries and raise money from Western Jews. A few months later, Mikhoels and Fefer approached Foreign Minister Molotov (of cocktail fame) and discussed the idea of establishing a Jewish state in Crimea. Molotov, whose wife was Jewish, seemed receptive to the plan and sent a memorandum to Stalin.
Stalin waited. In 1948, the State of Israel was established, and Stalin launched a violent assault against Russian Jews, using the Crimea proposal as evidence of Jewish nationalistic aspirations. He had Mikhoels arrested and executed in the infamous Lubyanka prison. Mikhoels’ body was thrown on a road and run over by a truck so that his murder would appear to have been an accident.
A few years later, Fefer and 12 other Jewish writers were put on “trial” and murdered in what came to be known as the “Night of the Murdered Poets.” This atrocity was emblematic of Stalin’s “reward” for Jews who stood by their country and supported their leader.
The pages of Jewish Ukrainian history are stained with blood, and there are few innocent figures. In just a few weeks, we will be sitting at the Seder reciting the timeless words of the Haggadah: “In every generation, they attempt to destroy us.” Although the cast of characters changes over the years, their goal remains the same. Our job too remains the same – to uphold the teachings of our ancestors and remain loyal to Hashem.