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Putin plays the anti-Semitism card in Ukraine crisis

Now-ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine in 2011. Credit:
Now-ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine in 2011. Credit:

Back in 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused his regional rival Viktor Yushchenko, who was then the pro-western president of Ukraine, of having campaigned on the basis of “anti-Russian, Zionist” slogans. Putin’s invocation of the Z word led some observers to briefly fear that Russia was reviving the spirit of Soviet anti-Semitism dressed up as “anti-Zionism.” But a few hours later, Putin’s office clarified that what he’d meant to say was “anti-Semitic,” not “Zionist.”

Was Putin’s office lying with this clarification? Was the remark a Freudian slip? We will never know for sure. Two factors, though, do stand out. Firstly, there isn’t much in Putin’s record that marks him out as an anti-Semite, and many Russian Jews speak positively of him, some because they feel obliged to do so, others because they genuinely believe in what they are saying. Secondly, Putin is quite happy to depict his enemies as anti-Semites if it tactically suits him to do so, which is essentially what he’s been doing in Ukraine this past fortnight.

Step back for a second, and you can see the rich historical irony at work here. One European nation with a long and bloody history of anti-Semitism has engaged in aggression against another European nation, also with a long and bloody history of anti-Semitism. When this happened almost a century ago, during the horrendous civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, pogroms wracked Ukraine; now, while there have been anti-Semitic incidents and speeches reported in Ukraine, there is certainly no state policy of anti-Semitism on either side, much less an event that could deservedly be called a pogrom.

At the same time, western intellectuals and activists who instinctively scorn the charge of anti-Semitism when it crops up in the contexts of Zionism and Israel are actually arguing that we should take Putin’s claims seriously! For example, there’s Professor Stephen Cohen of New York University, a leading nostalgist for the Soviet era, who compared Ukrainian nationalists to the Nazis in an interview with CNN. And then there’s Michael Lerner, whose Tikkun magazine and its associated “spiritual progressives network” are the closest thing we Jews have to a cult, waxing lyrically about his favorite bete noire: “The neocons seem all too willing to ignore the fascistic and proto-Nazi elements in the coalition that last week overthrew the democratically elected and pro-Russian government.”

No one would deny that Ukraine, in common with nearly every other European country including Russia, has too many anti-Semites. Its far-right parties like Svoboda and Pravyi Sektor mirror similar movements elsewhere in Europe, like Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece. It also should be mentioned that anti-Semitic rabble rousing has come from the pro-Moscow far left, too, like the Progressive Socialist Party that accused Jews of being behind the protests on Kiev’s Maidan. But Ukraine’s bid to free itself from Russian domination has not been driven by anti-Semitic ideology, as many Ukrainian Jewish leaders have themselves pointed out. “I categorically refute the statements appearing in a number of foreign media outlets of facts of massive anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine that do not correspond to reality!” declared Vadim Rabinovich of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress. “The whipping up of the situation around this issue is of a provocative nature and does not contribute to a calm life for the Jewish community of Ukraine.”

Why, then, the eagerness with which pro-Moscow circles in America have embraced Putin’s cynical manipulation of anti-Semitism? I don’t think there’s a one size fits all answer to this curious question, but Michael Lerner helpfully provides an insight. The “neocons,” he says, are playing down anti-Semitism in Ukraine because their “primary goal is to protect Israel and destroy all of its potential enemies—a list that grows longer and longer as long as Israel retains its dominance over the Palestinian people and denies them fundamental human rights.”

This is insane stuff, not least because neoconservatives aren’t actually running U.S. foreign policy at the moment. Yet we need to pay attention, because, as a cursory search of the Internet will show, there are many people out there who subscribe to this nonsense. And when we do pay attention, we realize that the dots being connected here are reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock painting: the Jewish state and its allies in America are backing an anti-Semitic regime in Ukraine in order to continue the persecution of the Palestinians. Like I said, insane.

I would therefore advise American Jews to play close heed to any anti-Semitic episodes in Ukraine. (Apart from anything, Ukraine is one of the few governments in the world over which the U.S. still retains some leverage, so our efforts won’t go to waste.) At the same time, let’s recognize Putin’s invasion of Crimea and his threat to the rest of Ukraine for what it is—naked aggression in violation of the United Nations Charter that, ultimately, poses a threat to all of us, whether Jewish or not.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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