Leaflets in Ukraine

The scene was so unsettling that it elicited harsh condemnation from around the world.

On the first day of Pesach, three men wearing face masks, holding the flag of the Russian Federation, handed out leaflets near the shul in the tense city of Donetsk, Ukraine. Purporting to be issued by the Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian group which last week took over public buildings and wants to end rule by the new Ukrainian government in Kiev, the leaflet said that all Jews over 16 years of age must register with a “commissar” at the regional government headquarters by May 3. Jews would also be required to pay a fee and report all motor vehicles and real estate in their possession. Failure to comply would lead to deportation and the “confiscation of property.”

The leaflet explained that action was being taken because Jewish leaders had supported the “junta” which took power in Kiev after the overthrow of the Moscow-backed president.

As news of the incident continued to reverberate, the United States strongly condemned the leaflets. “In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable; it’s grotesque,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters. “It is beyond unacceptable. And any of the people who engage in these kinds of activities, from whatever party or whatever ideology or whatever place they crawl out of, there is no place for that.”

Kerry was speaking from Geneva, where he was attending talks between the United States, the European Union, Ukraine and Russia about the unrest in Ukraine.

While no agreements were reached about the key question of Crimea, in a joint statement the participants said that “all sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions.” Furthermore, according to the statement, “the participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism.”

More than one week later, precisely who and what was behind the leaflets remains unclear.

The man whose name appeared as the signer of these leaflets, Denis Pushilin, the leader of the local  pro-Russian uprising that has taken over the city’s main regional administration building, said the leaflet is clearly fake, because he has never called himself the “people’s governor” and the logo for the People’s Republic of Donetsk is doctored. “And we have no antagonism toward Jews whatsoever,” he added.

Kirill Rudenko, a spokesman for the group, called it a crude forgery. “We made no such demands on Jews,” he said. “We have nothing against Jews.”

Rudenko insisted that the uprising’s leadership “didn’t write any such letters and won’t be writing any such letters,” and described the leaflets as an obvious attempt by outsiders to discredit their movement.

Supporters of the pro-Western government in Kiev were unconvinced, pointing out that it is highly unlikely that such leaflets would be distributed blocks away from the headquarters of the pro-Russian group without their tacit agreement.

Regardless of who the real perpetrators of this particular instigation are, the incident is yet another reminder of how local residents in general, and minorities such as Jews in particular, are caught in the middle between the warring factions in this volatile region.

Jews have a long association with many of the provinces that currently comprise the huge entity known as Ukraine. For centuries it hosted one of the largest Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and some of the greatest Gedolim in our history lived and are buried in these towns and villages.

This part of Europe also has a long and bitter history of massacres, pogroms and ruthless anti-Semitic persecution.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the majority of Ukrainian Jews left the country, but a significant number — according to some estimates, well over 100,000 — remain.

While there is no reason for hysteria, and overreacting to news reports often proves to be counterproductive, it is imperative that the global Jewish community stay on alert and continue to daven for the safety and well-being of our brethren in tension-filled areas throughout the world.