Ukrainian Jews are bracing themselves for a possible anti-Semitic backlash here over the case of John Demjanjuk.
A day before Israel’s Supreme Court ruled last week to overturn Demjanjuk’s 1988 conviction for war crimes committed at the Treblinka death camp, a group of protesters demonstrated outside the Israeli Embassy here demanding freedom for the Ukrainian native.
The demonstrators called for the immediate release of Demjanjuk and spoke of a larger Jewish conspiracy to defame the entire Ukrainian nation.
Similar demonstrations took place in Lviv (formerly called Lvov) during the official visit in June of Shevah Weiss, speaker of the Israeli Knesset.
Formal diplomatic relations were established between Israel and Ukraine in 1991, when an independent Ukrainian government was established in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Earlier this year, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk made an official visit to the State of Israel to formally open the Ukrainian Embassy there.
“Relations between Israel and the Ukraine could survive whatever decision the court reached,” said Ehud Eitan, charge d’affairs of the Israeli Embassy in Kiev.
“Some people see Demjanjuk as representing the Ukrainian people and react to the case as such, but neither government views it that way,” he said.
Though the case has been a major issue in Ukrainian communities abroad, especially in the United States and Canada, attempts at forging a mass appeal on Demjanjuk’s behalf have not been successful in Ukraine.
More importantly, the Ukrainian government has remained aloof from the case throughout the trial.
Levy Ziskind, chairman of the Central Synagogue in Kiev, played down the situation.
“Our only fear is that things will become as bad here as they are in Moscow,” he said, referring to the recent attacks on a synagogue in the Russian capital.
“Other than that, we do not want to get involved in politics,” said Ziskind. “Demjanjuk is not our problem. We have enough troubles of our own without politics.”
‘A TRULY UNDISTINGUISHED FIGURE’
In the quiet aftermath of the court’s decision to drop the charges of mass murder against the former Cleveland autoworker, the Jewish community here has allowed itself a sigh of relief — although Jews know the situation could take a sudden turn for the worse.
“I support the Israeli court’s decision, and I can say that the Jewish community is proud that the court found a correct decision,” said Froiom Yakovitch, chairman of the Jewish Historical Society of Ukraine and a professor at the newly opened International Solomon University in Kiev.
Yakovitch said, “I hope this case will not bring a new wave of anti-Semitism.
“I am afraid that some Ukrainians might use this case to stir up anti-Semitism in the country and try to use it as an example of how all Ukrainians were tortured by the Jews.”
Josef Zissels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities in Ukraine, was more optimistic. “Clearly, certain right-wing groups will use Mr. Demjanjuk as their political capital, but I doubt it will last long or be very serious.”
“Maybe something will happen if he arrives here, but I think he is a truly undistinguished figure,” said Zissels.