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Jewish Community Becomes Unwilling Participant In Ukrainian Political Battle

A woman walks past a swastika and the inscription "Death to Jews' painted on a wall in an underpass in Kyiv. File photo
A woman walks past a swastika and the inscription "Death to Jews' painted on a wall in an underpass in Kyiv. File photo
The origins of an anti-Semitic flyer distributed in eastern Ukraine this week are still unclear.

But the international controversy it provoked may point to evidence that Ukraine's Jews have become unwilling political tools in the battle for the country's future.

The most recent incident allegedly happened on April 15, but it took two days to bubble into the full-blown international scandal it has become.

On the first night of Passover, as congregants were leaving synagogue in Donetsk, three masked men reportedly distributed leaflets supposedly stamped and signed by the "governor" of the self-proclaimed and pro-Moscow "People's Republic of Donetsk." The document demanded that all Jews over the age of 16 register and pay a fee or risk being deported as punishment for their "support" of the government in Kyiv.

Denis Pushilin, the man named in the letter and a leader of pro-Moscow separatists who have been occupying a Donetsk administration building for 11 days, says his organization had nothing to do with the missive. Many are now calling it a provocation.

A picture of the letter spread on social media, after being published on an Israeli website on April 16.

On April 17, U.S. officials weighed in. Geoffrey Pyatt, the American Ambassador to Ukraine tweeted about it throughout the day - including retweets that directly implicated the separatists -- and went on CNN to declare that the letter was "the real deal."
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And in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the leaflet was "intolerable" and "grotesque."

Pinkhas Vishedski, the region's chief rabbi -- who was originally reported to be "shocked and hysterical" about the letter -- had a different message.

"Whoever was behind this is an open question," he told a local TV station. "But inasmuch as it is a simple provocation it should be treated accordingly. Full stop and end of discussion."

Yehuda Kelerman, a Jewish community leader in Donetsk, says the anti-Semitic leaflet may have been a provocation.

WATCH: Donetsk Jewish Leader On Anti-Semitic Leaflets
Donetsk Jewish Community Leader Says Origins Of Anti-Semitic Leaflets Unclear
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Vishedski's sentiment may be a reflection of a growing weariness of charges of "anti-Semitism" taking on the appearance of political maneuvering in the battle for Ukraine.

Since antigovernment protests began in December and eventually led to Ukraine's pro-Moscow government being replaced, charges of "anti-Semitism" and "fascism" have largely been levelled by Russia. Moscow has claimed that both the ultranationalist Right Sector group and the nationalist Svoboda party have an outsized role in the new government.

When Vladimir Putin warned in March about anti-Semitic bandits roaming Kyiv, a group of Jewish community leaders published an open letter to the Russian president asking him to stop speaking in the name of Ukrainian Jews.

Over the past two months, there have been a series of attacks on Jewish sites and often it has been unclear whether they have come from Ukrainian nationalists or from proponents of Moscow attempting to foment evidence of a fascist threat.

In late February, as a movement to join Crimea with Russia was taking shape, an RFE/RL correspondent photographed a synagogue in Simferopol, the peninsula's capital city, that said "death to Yids," a derogatory term for Jews.

The head of the Crimea's Jewish community told RFE/RL he suspected a provocation by pro-Russian forces meant to imitate Right Sector.

In April, a Holocaust memorial in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa was desecrated with Swastikas and "Right Sector" symbols.

Russian media was quick to pick up on the story, but again Right Sector leaders denied a role and claimed it was a provocation. A leader of the group travelled from Kyiv to help clean up anti-Jewish graffiti and reportedly offered the Jewish community there "protection."

It is not clear, however, if "protection" with political undertones is something Ukraine's Jewish community wants.

The most recent attack in Donetsk prompted condemnation from the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League. But a statement from the organization's director, Abraham Foxman, also included a request to political leaders.

“We have seen a series of cynical and politically manipulative uses and accusations of anti-Semitism in Ukraine over the past year,” he said. "The perpetrators and their targets are opposing politicians and political movements, but the true victims are the Jewish communities."
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

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