World-Wide Anti-Semitism and Ukraine: Old Patterns or a “New Wave”?

While many people routinely employ the word “anti-Semitism,” the term itself is rather ill-defined.  Though the news media has reported on recent anti-Semitic attacks which have spread through both Europe and the United States, such coverage has fallen short of the mark by failing to contextualize this “new wave” of anti-Semitism.  To what degree is current anti-Semitism distinct from older variants?  Such questions were very much on my mind when I recently travelled to Ukraine, a country with long and painful memories of anti-Semitism dating back to Czarist-era pogroms.  Moreover, during the Holocaust one million Jews were murdered in Ukraine, and tens of thousands of Ukrainians helped the Germans to execute them.

Despite this brutal past, today’s Ukrainian Jewish community is well integrated, and Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman is himself Jewish.  On the other hand, backward elements within society seem to be caught in a bizarre time warp: travel to the conservative western city of L’viv at the wrong time, for example, and you might jarringly come across nationalists marching through town wearing vintage SS caps or uniforms apparently inspired by the Nazi Wehrmacht.  Such uncomfortable displays have become all the more common in post-Soviet Ukraine, a nation seeking to define its own cultural identity.

If anything, the EuroMaidan revolution of 2013-14 and ensuing war against Russian secessionists in Donbas have turbo-charged Ukrainian nationalism to an even greater degree.  Some have observed that as public disaffection with the authorities and the course of the war mounts, so too have criticisms of the government, “oligarchs” and Jews, which are jointly blamed for Ukraine’s misfortunes.

Holocaust vs. Holodomor

Very questionably, hyper-nationalists defend retro military marches by pointing out that even though Germans organized Ukrainian units, the latter fought the Soviets during World War II.  For more on these matters, I caught up with Vasyl Rasevyich, a researcher at L’viv’s Center for Urban History of East Central Europe.  Rasevyich was particularly taken aback by regional authorities’ support for commemorative celebrations of the SS Galicia Division, a Ukrainian unit in Hitler’s Waffen-SS.  “I was very surprised that guns were displayed at an exhibit,” he remarked, “and they even brought in children to admire it all.”

In current-day Ukraine, the politics of historical memory has become particularly thorny as nationalists seek to brush aside discussions about wartime collaboration.  Unfortunately, Rasevych remarked, people in L’viv still buy into nationalist propaganda and myth making while defensively changing the subject when it comes to historical controversy.  “If people are confronted by the Holocaust, they will ask ‘what about the Holodomor’ [a Stalinist-era famine resulting from forced collectivization which resulted in the killing of 3.9 million people in Ukraine including Jews]?”

Privately, Rasevych added, some may claim the Holocaust was revenge for the misdeeds of the “Jewish Bolshevik state” which was in turn responsible for famine.  Such associations hark back to dangerous tropes from World War II, when Ukrainian nationalists linked Judaism to Bolshevism, an accusation which fueled further hatred.

Defining Anti-Semitism

The debate about Jews’ “disputed allegiances” harks back to age-old anti-Semitic tropes.  Indeed, though anti-Semitism has thrived via rapid-fire dissemination on social media, the lines of attack have remained remarkably constant.  Though it has certainly taken different forms over time, anti-Semitism at its heart relies on conspiratorial thinking based on one core idea, namely that the world is governed by small and evil elitist groups operating behind the scenes.  In this sense, anti-Semitism differs from other types of prejudice, since it relies on an all-inclusive world-view in which Jews operate as malevolent and transnational manipulators of institutions.

Whereas racists view minorities as inferior, anti-Semites’ belief system is based on the notion that Jews have too much power or may be secretly in control of the world as a whole.  On the surface at least, Jews may appear normal but deep down they display “dual loyalties” and are therefore dangerous.  Such views aren’t merely confined to the traditional political right, as evidenced by Jeremy Corbyn’s questionable remark that some Zionists “don’t understand English irony” despite having lived in the UK “for a very long time, probably all their lives.”  Across the channel in France, gilets jaunes protesters verbally abused renowned French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut while crying out “Zionist!”, “Go back to Tel Aviv!” and “We are France!”

In the U.S. meanwhile, ostensibly progressive Congresswoman Ilhan Omar blamed pro-Israel supporters for influencing Congress, tweeting out “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”  Later, while attending a panel discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Omar dug an even bigger hole for herself by remarking, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

From Capitalist Globalists to Communists

Historically, anti-Semites have associated Jews with liberal cosmopolitanism as opposed to so-called traditional values from the rural hinterland.  Ultimately, however, society may symbolically associate Jews with whatever the culture finds most loathsome, from greedy capitalism to “globalism” to free trade.  In the U.S., Trump has avoided any real economic critique while meanwhile resorting to code language.  He has, for example, inveighed against “globalists” and noteworthy Jewish financiers such as George Soros and Lloyd Blankfein, not to mention Jewish Federal Reserve Chairperson Janet Yellen.  The idea of Soros as some kind of “globalist” ties in with earlier notions casting Jews as a “wandering” people whose allegiances are amorphous.

Ironically, even as Trump implicitly ties American Jews to globalism, some Ukrainians seem to be tying their Jews to communism.  In 2016, vandals splashed red paint on a Holocaust memorial in the town of Uzhgorod, south of L’viv, and left anti-Semitic leaflets including one displaying a Soviet hammer and sickle with a message in Ukrainian reading “Holodomor: remember who murdered your people.”  After the attack on the memorial, the vandals sent a video of the incident to local media accompanied by a statement explaining that they had desecrated the monument as revenge for Holodomor.

Holocaust memorial outside the old synagogue in Uzhgorod.

As the case of Pittsburgh clearly shows, outbursts of anti-Semitism can be heightened as a result of inflammatory rhetoric during electoral campaigns.  Kyiv, which is fast approaching the second round of its presidential election on April 21st, should try to promote a more pluralistic notion of Ukrainian identity in the hope of forestalling any similar type of violence.  Unfortunately, however, president Poroshenko has embraced cultural and ethnic-based nationalism.  A formerly mainstream politician, he has now adopted a platform of “Army! Language! Faith! We are going our own way! WE – ARE UKRAINE!”

The paradox in Ukraine, however, is that Poroshenko’s opponent in the second round of the presidential election, political newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky, is rumored to be Jewish himself (reportedly, Zelensky’s mother is Jewish and the candidate identifies as such, though he refuses to discuss his ethnicity or religion).  Rather remarkably, Zelensky’s rumored Jewish identity has not been an issue during the presidential campaign, leading some to speculate that “exclusionary ethno-nationalism” no longer has much of a place in modern Ukraine.

In this sense, the country’s current presidential election differs from previous contests which have been marred by anti-Semitism.  Take, for example, former mayor of Uzhgorod Sergey Ratushnyak, a politician who became embroiled in anti-Semitic controversy during the 2010 presidential election.  Speaking to a local paper, the mayor remarked that Jews were to blame for all of Ukraine’s troubles.  As a candidate, Ratushnyak attacked a political rival, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, calling him an “impudent little Jew” who was “successfully serving the thieves who are in power in Ukraine and is using criminal money to plough ahead towards Ukraine’s presidency.”

Ukrainian Paradox

The questioning of Jewish loyalties has been a familiar trope: five years after Ratushnyak’s remarks, about 150 protesters brandished anti-Semitic placards outside a government building in L’viv, decrying president Petro Poroshenko and his allies.  One of the posters highlighted the assumed “authentic” Jewish names of a dozen Ukrainian political leaders, while other banners accused the “Jewish fraternity of selling off Ukraine’’ with yet others warning of “Jews in power.”

While questions have been raised about the protest, with some wondering whether it could have been a set-up by Russian agents provocateurs, others believe that nevertheless, L’viv has its own problems with neo-Nazi groups.  Alyona Andronatiy, a freelance educator in the Jewish community and former director of L’viv’s Hillel, told me “I don’t think all our violence is linked to Russia,” adding, “I think we have our own stupid people and they’re completely capable of doing stupid things without Kremlin influence.”

How does one explain the Ukrainian paradox in which questionable nationalist marches can occur in L’viv, for example, and yet Jews may achieve a degree of political success at the national level?  Ukraine currently has a Jewish Prime Minister, yet some politicians have criticized the government as being dominated by “Muscovite Jews,” an inflammatory insult in the context of war in Donbas.  Others have observed how Groysman’s success has encouraged a counter-narrative based on the idea that Jews have seized control of Ukraine.  Some have raised concerns that if Zelensky wins Ukraine’s second round of presidential voting, he could be judged similarly: in the event the upstart candidate performs well as president, he will be regarded as Ukrainian, but if the situation in the country worsens, then he will be labeled as an alien Jew.

When times are good, anti-Semitism may seem akin to nothing more than a set of stereotypes, and Jews might even thrive by achieving a degree of wealth and power.  On the other hand, when times get rough, society may identify Jews as the source of its problems.  Though Jews may have believed they had little to be concerned about, recent events in western Europe, the U.S. and Ukraine may prompt doubts.  Given the reemergence of age-old familiar tropes, the world may ask itself whether we are now in the midst of yet another “wave” or some type of “cyclical” anti-Semitic backlash.

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