Shmuly Yanklowitz

In Solidarity with the Ukrainian Jewish Community: Enough is Enough!

The Jews of Ukraine have been through enough.

On one trip, I spent weeks working in Jewish cemeteries cleaning up Jewish graves that had been desecrated. We were told if the Jewish community did not clean up the tombs (from the anti-Semitic desecration) that the bodies would be removed and discarded from the graves! I recall, one another trip to Ukraine, an elderly Jewish woman telling me about her long life of suffering under the Russian Revolution, various pogroms, the Holocaust, and Communism. It was just so much for one person to live through.

Now we have new reports that Jews in Donetsk (the eastern Ukrainian city) have been told to “register” and provide a list of their property, pay a registration fee, or risk having their citizenship revoked and face deportation and risk their assets being confiscated. Jews in Donetsk have reported: “They told me that masked men were waiting for Jewish people after the Passover eve prayer, handed them the flyer and told them to obey its instructions,” he said. The report was even noted with apprehension by Secretary of State John Kerry in an April 17 speech. This clear act of anti-Semitism brings back chilling memories of the Shoah and cannot be tolerated.

However, several aspects of the leaflet appear dubious. The leaflet in question claimed that Jews had supported the efforts of Stepan Bandera (see below) to create an independent Ukraine at the end of World War 2. This is patently absurd, as Bandera was a fascist who had collaborated with the Nazis in World War 2. In addition, the Israeli “Haaretz” news site noted that local sources speculated that this was probably an attempt to create the impression that separatists were behind an anti-Semitic campaign, as the leaflets had been distributed by a few masked men holding a huge Russian Federation flag to present the impression that they were Russians.

Fortunately, later reports have confirmed that these leaflets are an amateurish, though malicious, hoax that attempts to inject historical anti-Semitism into the bewildering situation in eastern Ukraine, where Russian troops pretend not to be Russian, and where Ukrainians from neo-Nazis to Communists struggle to find a coherent response to this uniquely unusual Russian aggression. However, the strong reaction within the Jewish community has valid roots in centuries of virulent regional anti-Semitism.

A bloody tug of war has proceeded for a millennium in Ukraine. Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, was the center of the ancient state of Rus (while Moscow was a small town). According to history and legend, in 988 CE, Prince Vladimir of Kiev converted to Eastern (Greek) Orthodoxy (then based in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople) and had all the people of his realm convert as well. As the centuries went by, the Orthodox church (led by its Patriarch) and western Christian church (led by the Pope in Rome) split and increasingly denounced each other, and then in 1240 the (Muslim) Mongols swept through Rus, destroying Kiev and permanently removing it as the center of a Russian state. Afterward, Moscow bided its time, allying with the Mongols to destroy its nearby rivals while quietly building its own strength, until it took on the Mongols in the 15th century. Simultaneously, the Muslim Ottoman Empire defeated the Byzantine Empire and took over Constantinople (eventually renamed Istanbul) in 1453, and the Orthodox Patriarch eventually relocated to Moscow. In the ensuing centuries, Moscow emerged as the dominant power in Russia, especially with tsars (the Russian word for “Caesar”) such as Ivan IV (“the Terrible,” for his awesome power), who smashed the remnants of Mongol power with the siege and slaughter of Khazan. The successors of these major religions and empires have fought over Ukraine ever since, as invading western forces (Teutonic Knights, Poland, France, Germany) have impressed on Russians the idea that the west is intent on destroying Russia, while Ukrainians also faced domination by the distant tsars of Moscow and later (from the time of tsar Peter the Great) St. Petersburg. Many Ukrainian nationalist heroes, such as the Cossacks Stepan “Stenka” Razin and the Hetman Ivan Mazepa, are still vilified as traitors by Russians.

Between 1648 -1657, the Ukrainian Jewish community experienced the horrors of a Cossack rebellion, known as the Chmielnicki Uprising, killing over 100,000 Jews.

In the modern era, nationalist movements emerged that were often threats to the Jews of eastern Europe. In Russia, for example, the nationalist Pan-Slav movement, with its “Third Rome” concept (that while Rome and Constantinople fell, Moscow would survive as the “third Rome” and fulfill the Christian destiny worldwide), began to dominate the Russian Orthodox church and many politicians and intellectuals during the 19th century. While sporadic attacks on the Jewish communities of Russia had occurred before, they became more frequent after the tsar was assassinated in 1881. From that point on, the Jews of Russia (which then included the shtetls in what is now Poland as well as communities in Ukraine and Belarus) were targeted for blame. For days on end, the Russian government, aided by military units, encouraged people to pillage, loot, and kill Jews within the shtetls, in “pogroms.”

From 1880-1905, Russian anti-Semitism was most prominently represented by Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, who served as Supreme Prosecutor of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (the position of Patriarch had been abolished by the Romanovs centuries earlier, as the tsar was titular head of the church). Pobedonostsev championed autocracy (the tsar should never be subject to law), and supported numerous discriminatory measures to ensure that Russia was a nation for Russian Christians only, ranging from a quota on the number of Jews who could go to school to a prohibition on allowing Jews to settle in other areas of Russia. While perhaps apocryphal, this hateful statement concerning the fate of Russia’s Jews represents his virulence: “One-third will die, one third will leave the country, and the last third will be completely assimilated within the Russian people.”

When the tsar was overthrown and the Soviet Union eventually established, some Jews welcomed the new government in the hope that it would replace the anti-Semitism of the tsarist period with an international, socialist movement (early Jewish Bolshevik leaders included Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev). However, once Josef Stalin rose to power, the Soviet Union began to resemble the Russia of Ivan the Terrible more than an internationalist state. Stalin murdered many of the original Bolsheviks (including Kamenev, Zinoviev, and later Trotsky, who was in exile in Mexico), and increasingly turned to Russian tsars as his models for rule.

While Lenin, Trotsky, and others had been cautious about how to pace the collectivization of farms and how to industrialize, Stalin decided that it should be carried out with a series of 5-Year Plans. In terms of agriculture, this consisted of seizing land from “kulaks” (anyone who owned a farm, from subsistence farmers to more wealthy farmers). In the Ukraine, the traditional breadbasket of Europe, this was met with the traditional opposition to Russian authority, including the slaughter of their own animals and violence against Russian officials. In response, Stalin literally sent in the army and a horde of bureaucrats, who deported many kulaks to Siberia and seized whatever seed they could find, which meant that there would be no seed for a large portion of the population for the next year. When coupled with the depletion of farm animals, the result was famine by 1932-1933, and perhaps millions died (estimates range from 1 to 10 million; no census results from this period have yet become available, making accurate estimates difficult). While Stalin and his apologists denied there was any famine, Ukrainian nationalists considered that the famine was a premeditated act of genocide (called the “Holodmor,” Ukrainian for “death by forced starvation”) by Stalin against Ukrainian resistance to Russian authority.

babi yarThis catastrophe had even more dire circumstances. In 1941, the Nazis and their allies invaded Russia, and they were greeted as liberators by many Ukrainians, with the traditional greetings of bread and salt. Regrettably, some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis in the genocide of the Jews that followed. Most notoriously, in September 1941, following sabotage of Nazi headquarters in Kiev, the Nazis retaliated by tricking the remaining Jews into gathering near a ravine, Babi Yar, outside the city. Several accounts confirm that the 34,000 Jews were led to the ravine by “Ukrainian collaborators,” and once they reached the ravine they were shot, most by machine gun, from a Nazi Einsatzgruppen unit. This atrocity comprised the worst single instance of mass killing in the war. babi yar 2

The career of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian fascist (mentioned in the spurious leaflet earlier), continues to resound politically. Bandera had originally fought for an independent Ukraine after World War I, and later welcomed the Nazis, but then came into opposition and was imprisoned by the Nazis. In 1944, he was released and fought with the Nazis against the Soviets. To some Ukrainians today, he is a nationalist hero, while to Russians, Jews, and many other Ukrainians, he was a traitor. Perhaps the different perceptions can be seen in the war itself. Russians call it the “Great Patriotic War,” while Ukrainians tend to call it “World War 2.” Today, Vladimir Putin and other Russians cite the Ukrainians as the successors to Nazi collaborators, while Ukrainians see the Russians as the traditional enemy.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the most famous Russian poet of the post-Stalinist period, may have summed up the situation best in his poem “Babi Yar,” which the composer Dmitri Shostakovich set to music as the first movement of his 13th symphony (called “Babi Yar”), which premiered a year later in 1962. Yevtushenko points out that in Babi Yar, one can see not only Nazi bigotry (along with Ukrainian collaborators), but also Russian crimes against the Jews.

O my Russian people!

I know you are international to the core.

But those with unclean hands

Have often made a jingle of your purest name.

I know the goodness of my land.

How vile these anti-Semites—without a qualm

The pompously called themselves

The “Union of the Russian People!”….

The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.

The trees look ominous, like judges.

Here all things scream silently….

Above the thousand thousand buried here….

The “Internationale,” let it thunder

When the last anti-Semite on earth

Is buried forever.

We will never take any threat to the Jewish community lightly in the Ukraine (or Russia). The government must make their voice loud and clear that the Jewish community is safe and that they will protect them. Denying a role in horrific threats to the community’s security is not enough. The Ukrainian authorities, like all governments, must proactively protect their vulnerable minorities especially when there is such a rooted history of scornful atrocities.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of multiple books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.