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Why can’t we talk about Ukrainian antisemitism?

Nazi imagery prevalent among Kyiv’s soldiers points to a horrific past and problematic present. Noting this doesn’t justify Putin. But silence about it won’t defend freedom.

Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II and Monument to the Motherland in Kyiv, Ukraine. Credit: Alexander Vovck via Wikimedia Commons.
Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II and Monument to the Motherland in Kyiv, Ukraine. Credit: Alexander Vovck via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

How important is the struggle against antisemitism to the liberal corporate media? How much of it a priority is it for the organized Jewish world? In both cases, the answer is that it is not as important as their commitment to support the war against Russia being fought by Ukraine. That’s the only conclusion to be drawn from a troubling story reported this week in The New York Times.

According to the Times, the wearing of insignia and symbols associated with the Nazis and their allies are prevalent among the troops fighting for Ukraine. It even acknowledged that antisemitism is baked deep into the history of Ukrainian nationalism—something that explains why these symbols are being worn by Kyiv’s soldiers. But as the article also made clear, it’s a bad idea to mention or discuss these facts unless you’re prepared to be labeled as a tool of Russian propaganda.

The dynamic here is a familiar one to anyone who has been following press coverage or commentary since Russia’s authoritarian President Vladimir Putin launched his brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. Nothing the Ukrainians or their popular President Volodymyr Zelenskyy say or do can be allowed to distract from the prevailing narrative about the conflict. This mandates that not only must everyone acknowledge the awfulness of the Putin regime and the consequences of the war it started. It also means we must adhere to the dubious notion that Zelenskyy is the reincarnation of Winston Churchill, and Ukraine is an exemplary nation that is fighting not just for its own independence but for Western democracy and freedom.

Ukrainian forces, inspired by Zelenskyy, defeated an offensive clearly intended to undo the independence they had achieved after the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991. Since their initial success, the Ukrainians have been locked in a stalemate with Putin’s army. Moscow has lost most of the territory it overran last year but holds onto all of the areas of Eastern Ukraine as well as Crimea, which it took in a separate campaign in 2014.

Support for war

Even though the war now appears to be over Zelenskyy’s demand that Russia give up the territory it took in 2014 rather than Ukrainian independence, it is still held up as a sacred crusade. That’s a point of view that has been adopted by a broad cross-section of opinion embracing the Biden administration and its media cheering section, as well as establishment Republicans, all of whom seem to be in favor of doing their best to perpetuate the war until Ukraine has defeated Russia, even though no one seems to know how that can happen.

Washington sent more than $100 billion to Ukraine last year. The likelihood is that this kind of spending will continue this year and indefinitely into the future with the war taking on the all-too-familiar pattern of unwinnable and endless conflicts that American taxpayers are supposed to think is a good use of their money. Anybody who dissents from this consensus—a category into which a growing number of Americans who rightly believe there are better uses for their money than fueling a bloody quagmire that does nothing to enhance American security and might actually be undermining it—gets quickly labeled as a Putin stooge or a victim of Russian propaganda.

That is the dynamic that the Times explained in its article about the reluctance of the media as well as the organized Jewish world to acknowledge the curious fact that the alleged defenders of Western freedom in Ukraine engage in nostalgia for the Nazis.

A tragic history of antisemitism

As is often the case throughout history, the truth is messier than neat narratives about good and evil. The Russians may be bad, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Ukrainians are the embodiment of all that is good.

The reason why Ukrainians wear these symbols is not exactly a mystery. While Ukrainians have the right to self-determination and independence, their nationalist movement has been linked to antisemitism since its beginnings.

The Ukrainian state honors the memory of Bohdan Khmelnitsky, the 17th military leader of Ukrainian Cossacks who led an uprising against the Polish/Lithuanian kingdom that then ruled much of the country. Khmelnytsky is best known to Jews for the massacres of Ukrainian and Polish Jews, which he organized and led, and which are immortalized in modern literature by books like Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Slave. This was the worst disaster to befall European Jewry from the Crusades to the Holocaust; historians estimate that more than 100,000 Jews were slaughtered by Khmelnitsky’s followers while thousands of others were enslaved or held for ransom.

Yet the Ukrainian Republic named its highest military honor after Khmelnitsky in 1995, and its current Jewish president, who is protected by a unit that is named after the Cossack murderer, has awarded it to his soldiers. Khmelnitsky also appears on Ukrainian currency.

The Ukrainians also embrace the memory of one of the leaders of the republic that was declared in Ukraine in 1919 after the collapse of the Tsarist empire. During the course of the war that it lost to the Russian Bolshevik regime that absorbed Ukraine, Symon Petliura, the head of Ukrainian forces, led pogroms that were responsible for the deaths of as many as 70,000 Jews.

Another Ukrainian hero is Stepan Bandera, a nationalist who led forces that collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Like many Ukrainians, he was eager to ally himself with anyone who opposed the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin, which had murdered millions of Ukrainians in the Holodomor terror famine. Though they would ultimately also be oppressed by the invading Germans, a great many Ukrainians actively participated in the murder of the Jews there in 1941, taking a principal role in atrocities like the Babi Yar massacre.

The events of the Holocaust were highlighted last year by Zelenskyy during his virtual speech to the Knesset. As part of his effort to persuade Israel to abandon its own interests and join the war against Russia, Zelenskyy claimed that Russia’s invasion was morally equivalent to the Holocaust and then made the equally false assertion that Ukrainians had stood in solidarity with the Jews of their country, thus obligating Israelis to rally to Ukraine today.

This wasn’t just false. It was the sort of statement that, had it been uttered by anyone else, would have been rightly labeled as Holocaust denial. But since Zelenskyy is now the new Churchill, virtually everyone in the West, including the organized Jewish world, gave him a pass for this.

While Zelenskyy’s election as Ukraine’s president is not unreasonably considered proof that the country’s attitude towards Jews is changing, his willingness to lie about the Holocaust was also evidence that rejection of its history of antisemitism is not considered good politics there. So, if Ukrainian soldiers often wear symbols associated with the Nazis and antisemitism, then it can hardly be considered a surprise.

Yet Jewish organizations aren’t interested in speaking out about this even though they are quick to allege that over-the-top criticism of Zelenskyy by Tucker Carlson employed antisemitic memes. Whether or not that is true, Zelenskyy is hardly the paragon of democracy he is made out to be. Ukraine remains a deeply corrupt country, and dissent against its government is punished—something that was made clear by Zelenskyy’s ban on the Ukrainian Orthodox church because of its historic ties to Moscow.

As the Times article acknowledged, those Western journalists who have been allowed to visit the front have asked soldiers to take the Nazi symbols off before they took their pictures, thus ensuring that Western audiences would be kept clueless about it.

This is a familiar pattern with respect to coverage of a war in which everything bad that happens—including, for example, the destruction of a Russian oil pipeline—is immediately declared to be the fault of the Russians, even though that turned out to be the work of Ukrainians. If the identity of those responsible for recently breaking a dam that helped supply water to Russian-held areas and led to much suffering comes to light, it may turn out to be a similar story.

Mindless isolationism and/or antisemitism, if not support for Putin, is freely imputed to those who are skeptical about the need for Americans to commit to indefinite backing of the Ukrainians rather than to work to end the war as soon as possible. But the proof that Jew-hatred has remained a factor in Ukrainian culture is considered something that may not be mentioned, let alone protested.

Speaking about this doesn’t justify Putin’s actions. Nor does it erase Russian antisemitism. It’s possible to be honest about the Ukrainians and their Nazi problem without validating Putin’s bogus claim that the goal of his invasion was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Still, denying the truth about Ukrainian antisemitism doesn’t help defend the cause of freedom. On the contrary, the willingness of so many to cover up for Zelenskyy and his forces undermines the fight against Jew-hatred. It’s time for those who claim to defend Jewish interests to say so.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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