More than a year has passed since the Maydan Revolution on the streets of Kiev that was a precursor to the annexation of Crimea of Russia and the separatist rebellion in the Eastern, Russian-speaking territories of Ukraine. However, the flare up and fighting words in the Russian speaking community over Ukraine has not let up. If anything, new barricades are being built between the warring factions on Facebook and the like social media sites, which have sometimes spilled out in offline.
Before, Russian-speaking immigrants from former Soviet Union’s 15 republics were content with being called Russian by their American friends and media. It was simpler to just acquiesce to being called a Russian then to try to explain the post USSR breakup geography, Now, if one is not from Russia there is a rush to explain that he or she is from Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Latvia, etc.…
Russian speakers in America are no longer predominantly Jewish as they once were in the 70s and 80s. The influx of new immigrants since have brought with them the non Jewish relatives of the original waves and people that have emigrated due to non Jewish causes and concerns such as just looking for a better economical life.
Although there is an understandable divide between former inhabitants of Russia and Ukraine over
Putin and Poroshenko policies in Ukraine, the phenomenon is in the bickering of Jews from former USSR.
I, as an administrator and creator of a large Russian-American Facebook Group, The Russian Insider, see daily infighting between our members over articles and commentary posted.
Peoples’ “Friend” lists have been decimated by “unfriending” and “blocking” of social media profiles of people on the wrong side of Ukrainian conflict. Anecdotal stories are making rounds of marriage and business partnerships broken apart by the fighting over Putin et al. Having been born in Moscow, capital of Russia and having sometimes espoused views that contradict official anti-Putin stance of the Obama Administration, I have been accused of being a Putin admirer, a paid agent of Russian propaganda machine. When asked where I can register to actually get paid for my underappreciated work as the mediator of a robust Facebook Group, nobody was able to give me an answer. Amusingly, I also had many invites and recommendations to move back to Russia from some Group Members when they were consumed by their anti-Putin rhetoric.
Even Russia’s chief Rabbi Berel Lazar did not escaped unscathed from the onslaught of accusations of him being a Putin crony. Incredulously, many Ukraine supporters wanted him to distance himself from the President of a country of which he is a Chief Rabbi and at whose mercy he serves. There are calls for Rabbi Lazar to publicly condemn Putin and disapprove any allegations of anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Critics of the Rabbi neglect to acknowledge that being a Rabbi is an apolitical position, his duties of being a spiritual advisor to Russian Jewry do not include getting involved in geo-political matters that are non Jewish at all in nature.
Based on my many conversations with my fellow refugees and observations of their social media colloquy I surmise that an overwhelming majority of Russian-speaking population in USA supports Ukraine in its conflict with Russia and are staunchly anti-Putin. There are a few factors contributing to anti-Russian sentiment in our community.
Due to old czarist Pale of Settlement rules, majority of Jews in USSR continued to live in Ukrainian territories and have emigrated from Ukraine or its predecessor, Soviet Republic of Ukraine. There is a natural instinct to support the people of their original homeland, even though Jews from Ukraine have fled that same homeland many years ago in part to escape rampant anti-Semitism there.
Russia was the main and leading republic of Soviet Union, whose capital Moscow was the capital for the entire country. Almost all despised Communist and Socialist directives that originated from Moscow’s Kremlin. Moscow was the heart of Soviet Union and its pride. All the best food and clothes were sold in Moscow. People in republics, although of different nationalities were forced to learn Russian language and its culture. In essence, many people were understandably resentful for being treated almost as vassals to Moscow. Same resentment still exists in people who lived in republics outside Russia.
A big proportion of Russian-speaking immigrants arrived or rather escaped from USSR, a country where anti-Semitism was official government policy with reprehensible quotas on how many Jews were allowed to have prominent jobs, be accepted in good universities and were prohibited under the risk of being sent to Siberia from learning Jewish language, culture or religion. Many immigrants have not been back to Russia since they left and do not appreciate how much Russia has changed from the Communist past that they fled. Although much anti-Semitism remains deep in the hearts of many Russians (just as it does in many other nationalities), it is no longer apparent on the official level. Jews in Russia experience religious freedoms and job/business opportunities just like all other of its minorities.
The White House position has been to wholeheartedly approve the Maydan Putsch against the Russia favored incumbent President Yanukovich. Moreover, USA regards Russian actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine to be violating international laws and have been sanctioning Moscow for same. As new and proud US citizens, emigrants from former Soviet Union want to appear to be in toe with and support the official American party line vis a vis the Russian Federation. Putin is naturally a not very likable character because of suppression of democratic election process and independent press in Russia; thus all his policies are immediately questioned and initially hated. What many do not recognize is that the Ukraine quagmire is not black and white- USA and Russia are pursing their own interests in the region, sometimes without regard for what is beneficial to the people actually living in Ukraine. Both behemoths employ various propaganda tools to push their agenda in the region. It is not unpatriotic to sometimes question the wisdom and end benefits of a particular American foreign policy, it is actually an inherently American right to exercise.
In my opinion Jews should stay on the sidelines of this particular topic. Words of ancient Talmud tractate Pirkei Avot, ring true even today generally and more specifically to the topic at hand: “Be careful with the government, for they befriend a person only for their own needs. They appear to be friends when it is beneficial to them, but they do not stand by a person at the time of his distress.”
Both Russian and Ukrainian governments have made Jews and supposed anti-Semitism in their respective territories one of the central issues in their propaganda battles. I feel that sometimes Jews are used as pawns in the informational warfare. Russia accuses Ukraine of gross anti-Semitism and adhering to fascist principles. Ukraine argues that opposite is true and that Jews are even welcomed in the most nationalistic Ukraine parties. Ukrainians blame any anti-Semitic outbursts on the Russian-speaking separatists and their sympathizers.
Few notable examples of warring sides using Jews in their propaganda are worth mentioning.
- In their efforts to drum up national pride and fervor, Ukrainians sometimes use Stepan Bandera, a hero of their nationalistic struggle against Communists and a Nazi collaborator. An Ukrainian-Jewish oligarch, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, a financial supporter of the Ukrainian policies has even, in jest, dubbed himself ZhidoBanderovitz , a “Kike Bandera supporter” to show that even Jews support Ukrainian nationalists.
- Ukrainian Army units comprised of nationalistic elements parade around a religious Jew in full Hasidic garb and another Jew who lived in Israel and is fluent in Hebrew to show them as supporters and fighters in the Ukrainian Army against the separatist.
- Separatists have claimed that a whole battalion of former Israel Defense Forces soldiers are fighting along side with them “to fight the Jew-hating fascists in the Ukraine”.
- Swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti on synagogues in Ukraine have been analyzed by both sides and have been concluded to be made by the supporters on the opposite side.
- Ukrainians reported on a synagogue in the territory held by the rebels that was issued a demand to register all if its members with the new authorities. This was later deemed to be a hoax.
It would be a shame to let some unscrupulous players in the Ukrainian conflict to continue to use Jews and allegations of anti-Semitism to advance their goals. We should not let them do so and we should not appear to give in to any provocations where we are seen to favor one party to the conflict over the other. Russian and Ukrainian are both Slavic people who are almost like brothers, with centuries of co-existence binding them. Kievan Rus, situated in Ukraine was the cradle of Russian and Ukrainian civilization a millennium ago. They will resolve their differences without us.
Intense peace talks, POW exchanges and most importantly gas transactions are conducted now between Ukraine and Russia. There will be a peace in the region soon! It is disheartening to see Jews fight and lose relationships over this issue. I hope that instead Jews unite in facing the threat of growing anti-Semitism in Western Europe and USA, a valid concern that must be addressed.
Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar (R) chat during a ceremony marking moving the Schneerson library at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, Russia, 13 June 2013. EPA