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In Donetsk, the Uses of Anti-Semitism

Were those vile leaflets handed out this week a sick joke? A reverse-smear campaign? by Halya Coynash 18 April 2014

Google the words “anti-Semitic leaflet” and the first pages will be only about Ukraine following the appearance this week of scandalous anti-Semitic leaflets purporting to be from the self-styled pro-Russian "Donetsk Republic."  Most accounts mention “separatists” and then consider who could hope to gain from them. Since not all reports demonstrate due skepticism, and many go on to repeat unsubstantiated claims about supposedly rising anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the likely fallout and inevitable mileage to be gained by the Kremlin seems clear.  Nor is this mileage only in the future. The Joint Diplomatic Statement on Ukraine signed on 17 April by the EU, United States, Russia, and Ukraine avoids mention of Crimea at all but strongly “condemn[s] and reject[s] all expressions of extremism, racism, and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism.”  A gift to the Russian propaganda machine.


Whoever was behind the leaflets, the Jewish people who saw them outside the Donetsk synagogue this week must have been distressed by clear echoes of the text posted around Kyiv on 28 September 1941 ordering all Jews to assemble near Babi Yar. Over the following days Nazi Einsatzgruppen and local collaborators stripped naked and murdered 33,000 Jewish men, women, and children.


The website Donbas News cited the Donetsk Jewish community as reporting that three men in balaclavas with a Russian flag had pasted the leaflets near the synagogue. “They believe that this was an attempt to provoke them into conflict in order to then blame them for attacking the separatists,” according to the website.


The leaflet addresses “citizens of Jewish nationality” and is purportedly from the headquarters of the so-called Donetsk Republic. It states that since the leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish community supported the “Banderite junta in Kyiv” and are against the Donetsk Republic, all over the age of 16 are ordered to register with the Donetsk Republic Commissar on Nationality Issues, at a cost of $50. They must also bring passports where their religious affiliation will be recorded, as well as documents about their families and property. If they refuse to register, they will be stripped of their citizenship and expelled from the “republic” with their property confiscated.


The supposed signatory, Denis Pushilin, and other “Donetsk republic” representatives have denied any involvement in producing the leaflets. Even people with the far-right views of many of the pro-Russian activists, such as Pavel Gubarev and Alexei Khudyakov, would be likely to understand how damaging such an undertaking would be to the “republic’s” reputation. This would not, of course, preclude various motley individuals from an amateur attempt to extort some money.    


The chief rabbi of Donetsk, Pinhas Vyshedski, told The Daily Beast “he could never imagine that anything as ‘cynical’ and ‘anti-human’ could ever happen to his community.” He believes it to be a provocation, but notes that Alexander Kryakov, press secretary of the “republic” is a notorious anti-Semite.


If the leaflets were not produced by the self-proclaimed republic then it seemed possible that they were the work of individuals or official bodies with an interest in discrediting the pro-Russian activists. spoke to a political analyst familiar with the activities of the Security Service (SBU]). The analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the text could be the work of the SBU, but right now security service officers have far more immediate problems, and all the necessary specialists were in any case removed when Viktor Yanukovych was president. “Such operations were carried out ‘on commission’ in Russia or by FSB [Russian Security Service] people brought to Ukraine.” It could be groups fighting the separatists who hoped to thus discredit them. He believes, however, that the Russian FSB might be continuing to milk the subject of anti-Semitism from a different angle. 


On the other hand, he does not rule out that it has come from the separatists and says it’s entirely in their style. He mentions that some are permanently drunk or high and that they had raided a vodka factory on 14 April.  “You can expect anything from them,” he says.


PRIMITIVE BUT LITERATE? points out a crucial detail that has been ignored so far. From 14 to 16 April, young men in camouflage gear and weapons went around shops in Donetsk handing out leaflets addressed to local businessmen. Purportedly from the “republic” headquarters, the leaflets demanded a “tax” from the businessmen of $70 each month to fill the republic’s reserves.


Both leaflets echo a play by Russia’s Strugatsky brothers written in 1990, “Jews of St. Petersburg, or Gloomy Conversations by Candlelight,” in which the city’s Jews and wealthy citizens separately receive flyers ordering them to gather in a central place.


There are certainly no grounds for suspecting the pro-Russian “republic” activists of being closet intellectuals. The authors therefore conclude that they cannot be behind the provocative leaflets and believe the creator of these is someone inclined to original and theatrical gestures who has decided to repeat the Strugatsky brothers’ scenario in real life and not on the stage.


Whether or not this is correct can be questioned, however the concluding comment is well worth heeding. “A real information war is raging and the very fact that the Jewish card is being used is extremely dangerous, whether this is by supporters of a united Ukraine or supporters of Russia and the pro-Russian separatists. The grubby provocation with the leaflets could result in real pogroms, especially considering the level of conflict in the Donetsk region and the fact that a possible anti-terrorist operation by Kyiv against the Donetsk separatists could lead to bloodshed in the coming days.”


Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea began on 27 February, the attempts to provoke civil war have been overt. They have been consistently thwarted, as were all efforts to present EuroMaidan and the new government in Kyiv as rabid anti-Semites. Events of the last weeks have demonstrated that Russian troops, “tourists,” and local titushki, or hired thugs, can be used where “civic strife” is otherwise unconvincing. Anti-Semitism must not be manipulated in the same way. 

Halya Coynash is a journalist and member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on whose website a version of this commentary originally appeared.

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