After two Jewish Yeshiva students were attacked last month – a story covered by Times of Israel – Moshe Reuven Essman, one of the Chief Rabbis of Ukraine, urged Jews to flee Kiev if not the entire country while they still can.

According to an article in Ma’ariv, Essman said the following:

“I said to my community to go out from the city center or the city in general and if possible from the state,” says Essman. “I did not want to open your tongue, but there are always warnings about attacking Jewish institutions.”

With the situation in Ukraine having some to a head, with chaos and violence in the streets of Kyiv, concerns about the safety of the Jewish community in the city is rising. Many Jews live within walking distance of the main square – Maidan – where the violence has been occurring, and the situation remains unpredictable.

Although there has been no overt signs of anti-Semitism in the EuroMaidan protests to date, one of the leading political parties leading the protests has far-right neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic roots. As the BBC has noted, in 2005 Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of Svoboda, signed an open letter to Ukrainian leaders, including President Yushchenko, entitled Stop the Criminal Activities of Organised Jewry, the comments of which the BBC summarized as follows:

• calling for the government to halt the “criminal activities” of “organised Jewry”,
• Lists Jewish businessmen, who got rich in the 1990s, and claims they control Ukrainian media
• Describes Zionism as “Jewish Nazism” and warns of “genocide” through the impoverishment of Ukrainians
• Demands investigation into the activities of Jewish organisations headed by people “suspected of serious crimes”

Svoboda is now the fourth largest political party in the Ukrainian Parliament, and even beyond Tyahnybok, other Svoboda political leaders have also made anti-Semitic remarks. For example, Parliamentary deputy Igor Miroshnychenko once called Ukrainian-born American film actress Mila Kunis a “dirty Jewess”, while another deputy founded the Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center in 2005.

To provide some context, from a historical perspective, Ukraine does have a history of anti-Semitism, and there was widespread collaboration with the Nazis in Ukraine after the German invasion of the former Soviet Union in 1941. Ukraine suffered horribly under the forced farm collectivization Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, with as many as seven million Ukrainians dying from starvation, including three million children. Not surprisingly, many Ukrainians initially looked on the Germans as liberators from Soviet rule, and what many perceived as Russian “Jewish Bolshevism”.

It should be noted that the vast majority of the protesters on Euromaidan to date have been ordinary citizens who in the face of horrifying losses from pro-government snipers in the security forces, the opposition has forced the authoritarian Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych to flee Kiev. The opposition seems to have a large proportion of young, democratically oriented liberals who wish to be part of what they perceive as a civilized EU and Europe rather than a Russian-dominated “Eurasian Customs Union”. And even Svoboda, as it emerged as a power in Parliament recently has moderated its language and seems to have purged itself of its previous anti-Semitic leanings.

With all that said, however, given the history of Jews in Ukraine, the situation in that country bears watching closely as events unfold.