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Kiev Attack Called ‘pogrom,’ but Some See It As Aberration

April 18, 2002
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Some Jewish observers in Ukraine say there have not been significant levels of anti- Semitism there lately.

They may have to re-evaluate after last Saturday night, when about 50 youths shouting “Kill the Jews” attacked the central synagogue in Kiev, beating three people, hurling bottles and breaking windows.

“I call this act a pogrom,” Kiev Chief Rabbi Moshe-Reuven Azman said. “It’s a miracle that it was not worse.”

The attack belies the rosy outlook that some have expressed for Jews in Ukraine.

Arkady Monastyrsky, director of the Jewish Foundation of Ukraine, was optimistic about the climate for Jews there. As proof, he pointed to the fact that more than 15 Jews were elected to the Ukrainian Parliament in the nation’s March 31 elections.

The situation in Ukraine “is stable and rather favorable to the Jews. We are free to do whatever we want without any restrictions,” he told JTA after the elections.

Igor Desner, a Jewish leader from the city of Vinnitsa in central Ukraine, also offered an optimistic assessment.

The fact that Vinnitsa’s synagogue is not guarded is proof of the benign atmosphere that prevails throughout the nation, he said.

Yet last Saturday’s attack has shaken the community.

Among those injured was the head of Kiev’s yeshiva, Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan, who was knocked to the ground and beaten with stones. Also injured were a security guard and the 13-year-old son of Rabbi Azman.

The attack occurred after Saturday evening services, and many worshipers already had left the building.

“We didn’t understand what was happening. All of a sudden, we saw a crowd running toward us with rocks,” Rabbi Azman’s son, Jorik, told Russia’s NTV television.

The mob dispersed before police arrived. According to The Associated Press, police have succeeded in arresting eight youths for the attack.

“The fact that the criminals are now in jail is an achievement,” said Vadim Rabinovitch, a Ukrainian Jewish tycoon and the leader of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine. “It is a defeat for terrorism.”

Broken glass covered the floor of the synagogue Sunday, and police stood guard outside.

The synagogue, known as the Brodsky Choral Synagogue, was built in 1898 by sugar industry tycoon and Jewish leader Lazar Brodsky. For decades, it served as the focal point of the city’s varied Jewish activities.

Soviet authorities closed it down in 1926. For decades after, the building housed several institutions, including a puppet theater.

In 1992, Chabad-Lubavitch groups, which are dominant in Kiev’s Jewish religious life, began seeking the building’s return.

They got their wish in 1997, when Ukrainian officials handed it over to the Jewish community.

Shortly thereafter, Rabinovitch contributed $100,000 to restore the synagogue.

Rededicated in a festive ceremony in March 2000, the synagogue symbolized the revitalization of Jewish life in Ukraine.

Many Jews in Ukraine and abroad were left aghast by Saturday night’s attack, but a rally in Kiev on Wednesday provided reason for hope.

Some 10,000 people participated in the rally, organized by the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress. Participants demonstrated not only on behalf of Israel but also to denounce racist attacks.

Along with Jewish leaders, Ukrainian legislators lashed out at fascism, anti-Semitism and terrorism.

The demonstrators, who converged on the capital from across the country, carried signs saying, “Ukraine is Against Fascism,” “Long Live the State of Israel” and “Down with anti-Semitism.”

Some Ukrainian officials this week tried to play down the significance of Saturday night’s incident, telling reporters it was an act of hooliganism by drunk soccer fans.

Asman, however, was adamant in his assessment.

“When a mob is moving toward a synagogue, collecting rocks on the way and shouting ‘Death to the kikes’ and ‘Heil Hitler’ — if it is not an anti-Jewish pogrom, then what is it?” he told JTA.

Asman ascribed the attack to anger over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Before they got to the synagogue, they trampled and burned Israeli flags,” he said.

Some Jewish observers suggested that young neo-Nazis acted in cooperation with local Arabs.

Vladimir Albert, a Kiev-based Jewish businessman, told JTA that most anti-Semitism in Ukraine nowadays “is the work of local Palestinians. There are lots of them in Kiev.”

There have been fewer anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine than in Russia during the last several years.

But there have been some disturbing developments:

Andry Shkyl, a jailed ultranationalist leader, won a legislative seat in the March 31 elections. The leader of UNA-UNSO, a leading Ukrainian xenophobic and anti-Semitic group, Shkyl was arrested in March 2001 for taking part in a violent anti-presidential street protest. In jail throughout the election campaign, Shkyl received 25.6 percent of the vote in his district, almost 6,000 more votes than his closest rival, a candidate from the pro-presidential For A United Ukraine bloc. Shkyl will be the first ultranationalist in the Ukrainian Parliament.

In a move that led to protests from Jewish groups across Ukraine, several cities in the western portion of the country decided recently to grant former members of the “Galychina” brigade rights equal to those of Soviet army veterans. The brigade, which included more than 10,000 Ukrainian volunteers, fought on the side of the Nazis during the war.

According to Jewish observers, there is a trend toward nationalism that may in turn lead to new outbursts of anti-Semitism.

In another worrisome indicator, there have been increased acts of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries, according to the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress.

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