Who’s Really Behind Ukraine’s Synagogue Attacks?

Surprisingly, Jewish leaders aren’t blaming the local neo-Nazis.

Ukraine’s tiny Jewish community is once again feeling under siege. But the Jewish leaders are not blaming the local neo-Nazis who participated in the recent revolution there; rather, these leaders believe that pro-Russian provocateurs are behind the attacks on their synagogues.

On Thursday evening, just hours before Russian troops poured into the Ukrainian province of Crimea, vandals spray painted swastikas and “death to Jews” on the only Reform synagogue in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol. Last month, another synagogue in the the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhiya was attacked by a mob who threw Molotov cocktails near the synagogue’s entrance. In January, a Hebrew school teacher named Hillel Wertheimer was beaten after returning from synagogue to his home in Kiev.

Ukraine has never been a very good country for the Jews. The 19th and early 20th centuries were marred by pogroms against Jewish communities. Under Soviet occupation, many Jews that stayed in Ukraine faced the state sponsored anti-Semitism of the Communist system. More recently, a few neo-Nazi groups have openly participated in the popular uprising that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych baring at times swastikas.

Nonetheless, leaders of Ukraine’s small Jewish community (experts estimate there are between 80,000 and 350,000 Jews in Ukraine) say they are more worried about anti-Semitic attacks from Russian operatives and Yanukovych loyalists than the nationalists who gathered in Kiev and other cities to oust him.

“In general, in Ukraine there have not been many of these attacks and less than in Western Europe and Europe as a whole,” Joseph Zissels, the president of the Ukrainian Jewish community known as the Vaad, said in a phone interview from Kiev. Zissels added it’s unclear who has been behind these attacks, but he suspects the recent vandalism against synagogues was provocations from Russian or pro-Russian forces who sought to occupy his country.

Rabbi Jacob Dov Bleich, the president of the Jewish Federation of Ukraine, signed a letter with other Ukrainian religious leaders Monday to the Russian federation urging them to end the aggression against Ukraine.

Speaking of the recent vandalism of the synagogue in Simferopol, Zissels said, “This is a provocation and a way to discredit the authorities in Kiev.”

The Rabbi of the Tamid synagogue in Crimea that was attacked last week agreed. He told the Times of Israel in an interview that he was urging Jews around the world to show solidarity with Ukraine and vocally oppose Russia’s invasion of Crimea. “We are very poor and miserable, but it’s not a question of money, it’s a question of freedom,” said Rabbi Michael Kapustin.

Zissels said he was more worried for the Muslim majority Tartar community in Crimea than he was for the 17,000 Jews who are estimated to live there. “The Jews in Crimea are not choosing any side in this conflict, so I do not think they are threatened,” he said.

The handful of attacks is also drawing attention from global Jewish organizations. “Our concern is that anti-Semitic elements not exploit the unrest to commit acts of violence against individual Jews or Jewish institutions,” said Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress in a statement Monday. “The future of East Central Europe depends on the maintenance of comity among diverse communities. We cannot afford a return of the demons of the past.”

Charles Ascher Small, the director of the Institute for the study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy, also said he was worried. “Not too far beneath the surface are old hatreds that are not only brought upon the Jewish community in Ukraine but once unleashed they could affect the entire society,” he told The Daily Beast Monday.

Zissels said he was aware that some elements of the Ukrainian Maidan movement that ousted Yanukovych were enthusiasts of the Nazis. But he also said Russian propaganda has exaggerated the role of neo-Nazis in the new Ukrainian government. “There are those kinds of groups, but they are small, not well organized and do not play a major role,” he said. “There are more neo-Nazi groups in Russia than there are in Ukraine.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

The Ukrainian revolution has attracted tourists from all ideological stripes, including other European fascist parties. Members of the main Ukrainian fascist party known as Svoboda have received posts atop the new interim government including the defense, environmental and agricultural ministries. Zissels pointed out that a number of Jews are now governors in the new Ukrainian government. “One of the main candidates for presidents, Vitali Klitschko has Jewish roots. His grandmother is Jewish,” he said.

Zissels also said websites affiliated with Yanukovych supporters had initially tried to blame the popular uprisings in the country that have raged since November on the Jews. “Now of course Yanukovych is not in power, but there is the possibility of his loyalists provoking the Jewish population,” he said.

For now, Zissels said he does not have much faith President Obama will do much to save his native Ukraine. “I don’t believe Obama can do anything that will be useful or effective,” he said. “But if he could do anything I would want him to end the Russian occupation of Ukraine. But I think only Reagan among the American presidents is the one who could do that.”