Democracy Lab

Why Jews and Ukrainians Have Become Unlikely Allies

The history of Jewish-Ukrainian relations hasn't been a happy one. But these days, the two sides are joining forces against Vladimir Putin.

In the propaganda battle between Russia and Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been playing up the nationalist roots of the new government in Kiev, alleging -- among other things -- that it is composed of "neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites." Putin's attacks have stirred up memories of ugly events in Ukrainian history, from the violence directed at Jews during Ukrainian uprisings against Polish rule in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the pogroms of the 1800s and 1900s in cities such as Odessa, Kirovograd, and Kiev. More recently, during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine during World War II, the dreaded Ukrainian Auxiliary Police -- trained by the Nazis at the SS camp of Trawniki -- played an active role in the extermination of 900,000 Ukrainian Jews.

As if on cue, over the last several months, mysterious attackers have targeted Ukraine's Jews in physical assaults in Kiev; defaced synagogues in cities such as Zaporizhia and Simferopol; and, most chillingly, distributed anti-Semitic leaflets in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk instructing the community to "register" with local authorities. (Insurgents have denied responsibility for these flyers, and some have even called it a hoax.) Given these events, it is well worth wondering what the future holds for Jews in post-Maidan Ukraine?

It is indisputably true that the revolution in Ukraine has been partially driven by elements with questionable pasts, primarily by two organizations: the Svoboda political party and the smaller Right Sector movement. Right Sector first emerged at the beginning of the Maidan protests in Kiev as a paramilitary alliance of several far-right Ukrainian nationalist groups who played a key role in the violence between the Maidan protesters and the Yanukovych government. Right Sector's leader, Dmitry Yarosh, venerates the controversial Stepan Bandera, who fought on the side of the Nazis from 1944 until the end of World War II. According to Yarosh, however, Bandera is a passionate but traditional nationalist, and not an anti-Semite.

The greater concern for Ukraine's Jews is Svoboda. The leader of Svoboda, Oleh Tyahnybok, certainly has a history of making inflammatory, anti-Semitic statements. During a 2004 speech before Ukraine's parliament, Tyahnybok stated that Ukraine is controlled by a "Muscovite-Jewish mafia," and in 2005, Tyahnybok signed an open letter to then-President Viktor Yushchenko, calling for the government to halt the "criminal activities" of "organized Jewry." Svoboda shocked observers by winning 10 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections in Ukraine, becoming the fourth biggest party in parliament. Svoboda party members now lead a number of ministries in the interim government of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenuk, including the Ministry of Defense led by Ihor Tenyukh. While Svoboda has strongly denied that it is anti-Semitic, concern about the party's ideology remains strong amongst Ukraine's Jews.

So is the Maidan movement "more a pogrom than a revolution" as Putin has described it, and what -- or whom -- should Ukraine's Jewish community fear most? Despite the substantial presence of right wing nationalists on the Maidan during the revolution, many in Ukraine's Jewish community resent being used by Putin in his propaganda war. (In the photo above, a poster in Sevastopol portrays Crimea's vote to secede as a choice between Russian citizenship and living in a Nazi state.) On March 5, 21 leaders of Ukraine's Jewish community signed an open letter to Putin excoriating the Russian president for using Ukraine's Jewish community to bash the interim government -- and insisting that the real threat to Ukraine's Jews emanated from Russia: "We know that the political opposition consists of various groups, including some that are nationalistic. But even the most marginal of them do not demonstrate anti-Semitism or other forms of xenophobia. And we certainly know that our very few nationalists are well-controlled by civil society and the new Ukrainian government -- which is more than can be said for the Russian neo-Nazis, who are encouraged by your security services."

This letter to Putin brought forth an important point: namely, that much of the real anti-Semitism directed at Ukrainian Jews is actually coming from Russia. As David Fishman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and director of Project Judaica (JTS's program in the former Soviet Union), explained: "When we look at what is going on the ground in Eastern Ukraine, we are seeing the revival of language of Russian imperial ideology from 100 years ago, which is both very nationalistic and very anti-Semitic, as well as anti-Ukrainian." Echoing what he wrote in an earlier article, Fishman noted that there has been a shift in how the Kremlin is using Jews in Ukraine. "Having failed to convince world public opinion that the new Ukrainian regime is anti-Semitic, we have recently had news programs on Russian state television asserting that leading Ukrainian political figures such as Tymoshenko and Yatseniuk are actually Jews," he continued. "Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and the Russian far-right inside Russia proper say that frequently, but it is the Russian government that sent such anti-Semitic extremists into Ukraine."

In fact, Yaakov Dov Bleich, an American-born rabbi recognized as Chief Rabbi of Ukraine since 1990, says that the recent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions have largely been staged Russian provocations designed to discredit pro-Ukrainian activists and Kiev's interim government. Bleich is not a Pollyanna about the existence of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, and remains deeply concerned about Svoboda and Tyahnybok's unapologetic use of anti-Semitic language -- but he is much more concerned about Russia: "All of the recent attacks on synagogues and Jews have taken place in the east where the Russian extremists are operating. Meanwhile, in the West, where there are supposedly ultra-nationalist extremists, all has been quiet. The Ukrainian Jewish Community is definitely more afraid of Putin and these pro-Russian hooligans than of Ukrainian anti-Semitism." 

Bleich also noted that the threat from Russia has actually brought Jews and Ukrainians closer together, a process driven by the tribulations of the Maidan where, as Bleich pointed out, Jews stood side by side with Ukrainians. Three of the 82 protesters killed by Yanukovych's police were Jewish, and Right Sector activists took a lead role in honoring one Jewish protester who was killed by a Berkut sniper. In what sounds almost like a made-for-TV movie, five Ukrainian Jews who had immigrated to Israel and served in the Israeli Defense Forces actually returned to Ukraine to lead a group of 40 Ukrainian fighters defending the Maidan. Jews also occupy a number of positions in the transitional Ukrainian government. Volodymyr Groysman is a deputy prime minister, while another Jewish-Ukrainian, Ihor Kolomoisky, was named governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region.

Right Sector leadership has also publicly gone out of its way to reassure Ukrainian Jews that the Jewish community has a safe and secure future in post-Maidan Ukraine. In February, Yarosh met with Israel's Ambassador to Ukraine Reuven Din El to and told him that the Right Sector rejects anti-Semitism and xenophobia and would not tolerate it. Subsequent to the meeting, the Israeli embassy posted a statement on its website noting that Yarosh "stressed that Right Sector will oppose all [racist] phenomena, especially anti-Semitism, with all legitimate means." Then, on April 8, after unknown actors defaced a monument to the victims of the Holocaust in Odessa with neo-Nazi graffiti, Right Sector leaders condemned the vandalism and said that it was now a matter of honor for Right Sector to find and punish those who defaced the Jewish cemetery. Right Sector official Valery Zavgorodny also offered Odessa rabbi Avraham Wolff assistance in protecting Jewish property in the city, and the next day -- in a moment that surely must have given Putin a bad bout of heartburn -- the world saw photos of Wolff and Zavgorodny jointly painting over the graffiti and shaking hands at a press conference. 

Putin, it now appears, has achieved the opposite of his original goal. Rather than splitting Ukraine's Jews from their fellow citizens, Putin's behavior has encouraged the Jewish community to condemn Russia's cynical use of anti-Semitism as a political tool. And in the process, as Timothy Snyder wrote recently, the Jews in Ukraine have become Ukrainian Jews.

VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

COIN of the Realm

Could the counterinsurgency strategy that failed for the U.S. in Afghanistan work for China in Xinjiang?

Random arrests, indefinite detentions, and religious oppression are certainly nothing to aspire to. But observers of China's internal affairs can in some respects consider Beijing's campaign against Muslim Uighur separatists in the Western region of Xinjiang to be a success, at least to the extent that the unrest there hasn't devolved into an all-out war. Still, tensions there appear to be rising. There seems to be an increase in violence between Han Chinese and Uighurs, who make up just under 50 percent of the region's roughly 22 million people, as well as in Uighur-planned terrorist attacks. In late October, a car crash near Beijing's Tiananmen Square killed five -- an exceedingly rare attack on one of the most heavily policed parts of China. On March 1, masked attackers stabbed to death 29 people and injured more than 140 in a railway station in the southern city of Kunming. And an April 30 bomb and knife attack at a railway station in Urumqi, which killed three and injured 27, was all the more dramatic as it took place at the end of Xi Jinping's first visit to Xinjiang as president.

Beijing has claimed Uighur separatists were responsible for all three attacks, reflecting what appears to be growing concern about the potential for escalation. And this concern could prove well-founded if Beijing does not impose more effective polices. Beijing's current "strike hard" approach of mass arrests and draconian suppression of political and religious rights seems to be making things worse. Instead, China might be wise to consider implementing aspects of a traditional counterinsurgency strategy, even though the situation in Xinjiang may not fit with the popular conception of insurgency to the tune of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Unsurprisingly, China tends to use a heavy hand in putting down movements it perceives to be a threat to the cohesion of the state, even when they are as harmless as a group of Tibetan monks celebrating the Dalai Lama's birthday. A number of factors inspire this strategy. China is paranoid about any of its potentially secessionist regions -- for example, Taiwan, Xinjiang, or Inner Mongolia -- setting a precedent by declaring independence. Then there is the perhaps coincidental fact that these regions, in particular Tibet and Xinjiang, are home to critical resources that support the all-important Chinese economy. (Xinjiang is not only massive and strategically important from a trade and defense perspective, but it also contains an estimated 30 billion tons of oil and natural gas reserves.) And finally there is the fear that the international Islamic terrorist movement could direct its violent ire at China.

In this vein, China has used aggressive tactics in subjugating the Uighurs, which has embroiled Beijing and the Uighur movement in a repeating circle of violence. Jailings, executions, and the application of excessive force by the government has catalyzed growing radicalism among the Uighurs, whose attacks in turn evoke more brutal repression which then spur new rounds of insurrection.

Today this cycle appears to be shifting towards a more dangerous dynamic for the Chinese, both because of the growing anger among Uighurs and their increasing ability to draw international support, including in the human rights community. That said, when one looks at the current situation in Tibet, once a darling of the human rights world (and a non-Muslim one at that, which typically means more money and love), support may do little to change events on the ground.

Calls for greater respect for Uighur rights for their own sake will almost certainly continue to fall on deaf ears in Beijing, where concern for international norms rarely seems to drive policy. But Xinjiang may be different because the oppressive measures China has used to counter a rising Uighur movement have shown themselves to exacerbate a longer-term and perhaps quite dangerous problem. Thus, despite deep-rooted fears of loosening its reins, perhaps China could be persuaded to consider other means of controlling the region.

Traditional counterinsurgency doctrine focuses on building host-nation forces and government entities to restore legitimacy and win the support of the population away from the insurgents. Of course, many counterinsurgency campaigns also require the capture or removal of hardcore insurgents; in the case of Xinjiang, this should for the time being be avoided to prevent reinforcing the cycle described above. But other elements of COIN, including improving public services, creating employment, instilling some semblance of rule of law, and providing education for the population would go a very long way in Xinjiang.

COIN has had a rough couple of decades, culminating in the apparent failure of the U.S. and NATO to achieve specific goals in Afghanistan. But this is primarily the result of the misapplication of COIN to cases in which the necessary circumstances for success were absent. The characteristics of a region that is fertile for COIN are generally considered to be as follows: a credible and capable host-nation force; a lack of substantial outside support or safe haven for the insurgency; a robust intelligence network; control of the physical and human terrain; and control of the flow of information. China has all of these in Xinjiang, while in Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO had barely any of them.

Rather than use extrajudicial force to control Uighur activists, China might seek to improve rule of law with regard to criminal prosecutions (recognizing that these structures are flimsy anywhere in China) to enhance Uighurs' sense that the state doesn't simply exist to oppress them. With regard to economic development, another critical pillar of COIN, rather than the current "rising tide lifts all boats" approach (which appears to mostly benefit Han Chinese in region), China might consider ways to better distribute the revenues gained from the investments and industrialization underway to ensure they reach the Uighur community as well. And while Beijing has announced efforts to invest in public works and services in Xinjiang over the last several years, these too would have to be directed at the Uighur population rather than Han Chinese companies in order to help quell insurgent activity. Of course, there are "stick" elements of COIN that typically accompany these "carrots"; but Beijing may want to err on the side of offering carrots for now, if it wants to win this fight. Too many sticks have been used already.

China would likely have to take one more step that might at first seem like a bitter pill -- relaxing the restrictions on the practice of Islam in Xinjiang, since religious oppression will likely remain at the top of the Uighurs' complaints. But this and the other steps outlined above seem like a small price to pay to pacify a strategically critical area that has been a thorn in Beijing's side and whose potential for disruption of the overall Chinese project is only growing.

To be sure, Xinjiang will probably never be a bastion of human rights and for China to consider these measures would represent a major departure from the past. But the region need not be Switzerland to remove some of the most prominent grievances of the Uighur people. If China takes a few pages from the same COIN book that got the U.S. and NATO into a bind in Afghanistan, the tide in the region might actually turn in their favor, not to mention make life a little bit better for the Uighurs.

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