While anti-Semitism definitely exists in Ukraine, there is no basis to believe that recent incidents are attributable to the interim government or nationalistic elements, Ira N. Forman, the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, told leaders of Agudath Israel of America Friday morning.
Joining Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi, in a conference call from Washington, Mr. Forman noted that he had visited Ukraine just a month before the Maidan riots broke out in December. Without mentioning Vladimir Putin by name, Mr. Forman shot down assertions of anti-Semitism made by the Russian president as a pretext for invading the Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
“Anybody who would just quickly dismiss any possibility of anti-Semitism in Ukraine is simply incorrect,” he said. “One doesn’t have to know much history of this region … to know that at least parts of Ukraine and Belarus have been called the ‘bloodlands’ for very good reason.”
However, Mr. Forman said, “I can say that while we are concerned about incidents of anti-Semitism, we have no reason to believe, based on talking to people like Rabbi Bleich and others in the country, but also, frankly, from our posse as well, that these are being perpetrated by elements that are attached to the government, ultra-nationalists, Svoboda, right form, etc.”
Mr. Forman raised objections that allegations by Russia of government-backed anti-Semitism were being passed on in the press, even in the Jewish media, as fact.
The Kerry appointee observed that all recent attacks on Jews have occurred in the capital city of Kiev, which historically has been peaceful for Jews.
“One would think if it was these right wing elements you’d find these attacks going on in western Ukraine, near Lviv and places like that,” he said. “And we’re not seeing that. So we don’t have hard evidence of who is responsible, but what I’ve heard from Rabbi Bleich seems very consistent to what I hear.”
Earlier in the call, Rabbi Bleich said that he was concerned that Russia was using isolated incidents to “cynically abuse” the Jewish community as justification for invading parts of the country straddling eastern and western Europe.
“From our perspective, the Jewish community in Ukraine, it is very important that this message … gets out to the greater Jewish community about the true situation of what is going on in Ukraine,” Rabbi Bleich said. “It is important because to a great extent there is a situation where there are sakanos and there are dangers to different things and different people within the community.”
“We’ve had attacks,” he said. “However, there is a feeling amongst most of our community that we are being used, the Jewish community is being pulled into the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in a way that is very cynical, a cynical abuse I would say of the anti-Semitism that is taking place and a cynical abuse of the community which itself is in a sakanah.”
Rabbi Bleich said that all the shluchim in Ukraine, sent by Stolin, Chabad and Ohr Somayach, work very well together. He said that despite the chaos in the streets, regular life in the yeshivos and kollelim are continuing with little interference by the government.
The American-born Rabbi said that while Putin may be good for Russia’s Jews, the community in Ukraine would suffer greatly if the country came under Russian hegemony.
While Russian Jewry is a “controlled type of Yiddishkeit … in Ukraine, the Yiddishkeit over the last 22 years blossomed and grew because they had this freedom to do what they had to do and how they had to do it.”
All top leaders of the interim Ukrainian government have reassured Rabbi Bleich that they will not tolerate any anti-Semitism, the Chief Rabbi said, adding that although the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party may not be an optimal coalition partner under normal circumstances, they have been quiet until now and have given little indication of antagonism toward the Jews.
“This was a grassroots [demonstration],” Rabbi Bleich said. “So you had hundreds upon hundreds of Jews out there along with these Ukrainians, and according to reports, even until today we did not hear of any anti-Semitism that took place between the ultra-right nationalists and the Jews.”
As for the attacks on Jews that garnered international press, Rabbi Bleich suggested that they may have been “agents provocateur” sent to prove that Jews are in need of protection. All the assaults were “very professionally executed attacks,” he said. Each victim was followed home by a group, who divided themselves into attackers and watchers.
“We would like that the Jewish question, the question about Jews and anti-Semitism, should not figure in any way, anywhere in this conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” Rabbi Bleich said. “We didn’t make it part of the issue, we don’t want it part of the issue, we tried to stay out of it as much as we can during the internal fight in Ukraine, during the demonstrations, and we would like to stay that way during the bigger conflict between Russia and Ukraine.”
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president, said that Jews worldwide were concerned about anti-Semitism in the country that has seen so much of it in its history, but appreciated the U.S. government’s firm stance.
“On the one hand [events in Ukraine] are frightening,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “On the other hand, we have some level of reassurance based on what we heard today, certainly that the American government is deeply engaged in this matter … and that the community and its leadership is aware of what is happening and taking the appropriate steps and we here in the United States have an opportunity to be helpful in tangible ways by helping the community.”
Mr. Forman echoed that reassurance, remarking that several State Department officials — including Secretary of State John Kerry — have been to Ukraine over the past three months and specifically visited the Jewish community. “If we find problems,” he vowed, “we are going to sound the alarm.”