KIEV, Ukraine (JTA) – A spate of anti-Semitic attacks in Ukraine and the government’s lack of a strong response is stoking anxiety among Ukraine’s Jews and European Jewish communal leaders.
In the most recent incident, a Chabad house in the city of Uzhgorod was set ablaze Oct. 5.
In late September, three consecutive days saw separate attacks on Jews in the cities of Zhitomir, Sevastopol and Cherkassy.
Jews have been beaten, communal property has been desecrated, neo-Nazis have been allowed to march in Kiev and on Sunday, the government awarded a prestigious medal posthumously to a wartime Ukrainian nationalist who fought alongside the Nazis, Gen. Roman Shukhevich.
Jewish community leaders are blaming the government.
“Ukrainian government policy results in anarchy and such attacks,” said Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, one of the country’s chief rabbis. “We have anarchy in Ukraine, lawlessness and impunity.”
On Wednesday, the president of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, announced he was canceling plans to attend a Ukrainian government ceremony honoring the Jewish Red Army commander who liberated Auschwitz, the late Maj. Anatoly Shapiro, to protest the government’s silence on anti-Semitism and its decision to award the same medal, the Hero of Ukraine, to Shukhevich.
“In the last few days things have deteriorated extremely in Ukraine with regard to anti-Semitism,” Kantor wrote in a letter to colleagues Tuesday. “After four major physical attacks against rabbis in Ukraine within the last month, we have not seen nor heard any statement from the government condemning this tendency.”
The recent attacks in Ukraine have been against visibly religious Jews or congregants on their way to or from synagogue. Investigations have not resulted in arrests or successful prosecutions.
Rather than treating the attacks as anti-Semitic in nature and targeting extremist groups, Ukrainian police tend to see the episodes as “hooliganism.”
“What worries us most of all is the lack of government response to such violence,” said Josef Zissels, head of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations in Ukraine, or Vaad. “These manifestations of anti-Semitism in Ukraine against a background of instability disturb the Jewish community very much.”
Aleksandr Sagan, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, blamed the violence against Jews on “external forces” interested in destabilizing the government.
“It looks like atypical incidents for Ukraine. We must investigate these cases properly,” Sagan said. “Probably this is a realization of some Russian ideas.
“We condemn such manifestations of hatred and combat them,” he said.
The government has not made any official statements on the recent attacks, however.
Jewish communal leaders say Ukrainian law enforcement officials continue to deny that the country has a problem with hate crimes.
In the more recent attacks, only the police in Sevastopol detained a suspect, a young man from Dnepropetrovsk. He was not placed under arrest.
Viktor Gavrylyuk, head of the local police department, told JTA the attack was being treated as a case of hooliganism.
After the Uzhgorod Chabad house was burned, police spokesman Igor Stefanetz told JTA, “This is everyday larceny which is not connected with anti-Semitism.”
The sharp rise in anti-Semitic attacks in Ukraine coincides both with the Jewish holidays and the run-up to Ukraine’s parliamentary elections. Some Jews see a connection.
“This is an essential element of destabilization in Ukraine during an election campaign,” said Mikhail Frenkel, a Jewish journalist in Kiev.
“These incidents don’t have anything to do with the parliamentary elections in Ukraine,” said Vyacheslav Likhachev, the Kiev monitor for the UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union. “We didn’t see fixed outbursts of anti-Semitism during the last campaign.”
Likhachev attributed the spike to Jews’ greater visibility during the holidays.
“There is a tendency for anti-Semitic manifestations to rise during the Jewish holidays,” he said.
The European Jewish Congress was especially irritated when the government went ahead with the state-sanctioned commemoration ceremonies honoring Shukhevich, the World War II-era leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army who fought alongside the slaughterers of Jews.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians turned out for the ceremonies, some of which contained anti-Semitic elements, alarming many Jews here. A few joined a rally in the capital on Sunday organized by left-wing groups protesting the honor awarded to Shukhevich.
In an open letter to the Ukrainian government, Jewish leaders petitioned the government to “remove Nazi symbols, which are prohibited all over civilized societies, from the streets and squares of Ukraine.”
“We ask authorities and law enforcement agencies to keep their promises and stop the release and publication of fascist newspapers and magazines which incite interethnic hatred,” the letter said. “We ask authorities to call to account people responsible for their release and publication in order to prevent the revival of fascism with its symbolism and salutes under the shelter of pseudo-national slogans.”
Experts say the growing neo-Nazi movement is one of the main factors for the rise in anti-Semitic violence in Ukraine.
Nickolai Butkevich, the research and advocacy director at UCSJ, said neo-Nazi gangs in Ukraine are influenced by their comrades in Russia, and Ukraine’s neo-Nazis are most active in the parts of the country closest culturally and politically to Russia.
“The main difference is that in Ukraine, Jews are the primary target,” Butkevich said.
The attacks against Jews in Ukraine have coincided with increased attacks against other minorities, including blacks, Asians and Arabs, according to Likhachev, who counts seven attacks on religious Jews this year and 12 against Arabs.
In the last year, Butkevich said, seven people died as a result of racist attacks.
Aleksandr Feldman, a Ukrainian member of Parliament and president of the Jewish Foundation of Ukraine, said it’s time for the government to adopt legislation against anti-Semitism to ensure the safety of the country’s Jews.
“This is a problem of the Ukrainian state and its image,” Feldman said. “Unfortunately we do not see any response toward the manifestations of xenophobia and anti-Semitism from Ukrainian authorities.”