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Ukraine Jews wanted to rebuild the country

UKRAINIAN JOURNEY: Sam Sokol

BY SIMON YAFFE

RUSSIA and Ukraine both instrumentalised antisemitism during the Donbas War, according to Sam Sokol.

The journalist’s new book Putin’s Hybrid War and The Jews (Institute For The Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy) is based on his reporting from Ukraine during the first years of the war.

Mr Sokol chronicles the collapse of Jewish life in the regions of eastern Ukraine which were occupied by Russian-backed separatist militias in 2014.

The two countries, of course, have a long — and vicious — history of Jew-hatred.

Russia also has a history of disseminating false propaganda — which they did during the war, too, as did Ukraine, albeit on a smaller scale.

Mr Sokol told me: “The Russians claim there had been a pogrom in Odessa and wanted people to believe it marked the return of Nazism.

“It is true that there was an increase in antisemitic vandalism in Ukraine, but the Ukrainians would not admit to it because that would be seen as giving in to Russian propaganda.”

Another example was when, right after Russian troops entered Crimea, a synagogue in Simferopol was covered in antisemitic graffiti, including the Wolfsangel logo, which was used by the far-right Ukrainian group Right Sector. However, the logo had been drawn on backwards.

“Right Sector was also not active in Crimea, but Russia Today sent some journalists to interview Misha Kapustin, the synagogue’s rabbi, and edited his interview, which made it seem like he was running away because he was scared of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism,” Mr Sokol said.

“It was complete rubbish.”

The 36-year-old, who was raised in New York, initially was placed on the Jewish world beat for the Jerusalem Post and he spent much of his time in eastern and central Europe.

His maternal grandparents were Polish Holocaust survivors, while his mother was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany after the Second World War.

“I always felt my skin crawl when I was in Poland because of my family history — not because of anything the country did to me personally,” explained Mr Sokol, who received the 2015 Bnai Brith Diaspora Reportage Award for his work on the Jews of Ukraine.

His book is based on 11 reporting trips to Ukrainian cities, including post-Euromaidan Kiev, Dnipro, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Lugansk and Donetsk.

“It was most dangerous for Ukraine’s Jews during the Euromaidan in Kiev and then, post-maidan, in Donetsk and Lugansk,” Mr Sokol said.

“Those in Donetsk and Lugansk were displaced with the rest of the population, so not because they were Jewish.

“A few organisations, such as Chabad, the JDC and World Jewish Relief helped, but many of my colleagues in the Jewish media had trouble persuading their editors that the story was one worth pursuing in the long term.”

Sadly, a number of Jews in Israel were of a similar negative opinion when it came to their brethren in Ukraine.

“I remember being in shul in Israel and a guy asked me why should he care about this issue and that they should have emigrated to Israel,” Beit Shemesh-based Mr Sokol continued.

“I don’t think that apathy was the minority opinion, either.

“In Israel the only interest in the Hebrew-language newspapers was that if 100,000 Jews were displaced, then maybe it is a story.

“Many of the Jews in Ukraine do not want to go to Israel because they see Ukraine as their home.

“They wanted to help build Ukraine after the fall of communism.

“I spoke to one Jewish woman in Dnipro and she said, ‘what about the Jews living in Sderot? They live with rockets being launched at them all the time and they stick it out, so we will do the same here’.”

Since 2013, however, around 32,000 Jews have emigrated to Israel from Ukraine. The situation is complex, though.

Mr Sokol explained that the heads of the Donetsk and Lugansk governments made antisemitic statements, such as claiming Jews controlled Ukraine, while the-then foreign minister of Donetsk, Alexander Kaufman, was Jewish.

There is a kernel of truth in Russia’s claims of antisemitism on Ukraine’s part, too. Thousands fled during the pogroms and Ukrainians were more than willing collaborators during the Holocaust.

And historically antisemitic figures, such as Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, are still venerated today.

“Some Ukrainians even make out that Bandera was actually philosemitic,” Mr Sokol added.

“The whole thing is what Israelis like to call a ‘balagan’, a word with Russian roots which means chaos.

“In Ukraine, for example, the interior ministry has made close ties with far-right movements such as C14 and the National Corps, even though the country has a Jewish prime minister (Volodymyr Groysman) and president (Volodymyr Zelenskiy).

“Seventy per cent of Ukraine voted for Zelenskiy and antisemitism was not an issue at all during his campaign, so that says a lot about where Ukraine has come.

“Antisemitism is still a problem, with Holocaust revisionism an issue, but it is nowhere near as bad as Russia would have people think.

“Jews in Ukraine today are more worried about making a living or what is going to happen in the east of the country.”


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