The Black Hole of “Ukrainian Anti-Semitism”

I write these words in the last month of 2008 in an attempt to pull the issue of anti-Semitism in Ukraine from the edge of a black hole in which time and space have ceased to exist. I will look at the reasons why the issue has ended up there, who wants it that way, but I have only one objective – to stop blurring different issues in order to move forward in our time and space.

My life, and probably the reader’s, has been lived under the weight of the Holocaust. I will never remove that weight and I would not try to do so. My family suffered immeasurably more from Stalin’s regime, yet the Holocaust and the degree to which vast numbers of human beings were involved in a killing machine and in the deliberate slaughter of children on the grounds of race remain the edge of an abyss, awareness of what we human beings are capable of. Awareness of the duty to know and remember and of our responsibility for ensuring that it never happens again.

I am convinced, however, that the failure to separate the need to understand the past and the challenge of here and now can have dangerous consequences. I am equally certain that this blurring of the edges is being encouraged in some quarters, and that particular myths and stereotypes are deliberately repeated despite the fact that those most competent to judge have demonstrated that they are flawed. I will return to the extremely interesting results of monitoring of the actual situation later, however first let’s look at what we all effectively stand accused of.

The charges range from innate anti-Semitism and collaboration to an apparently major role in the Holocaust. I wasn’t born then, my family were certainly not involved, and any person who in any way took part in the murder of Jews (or anybody else) in WWII committed a sin and a crime against all of us. That is neither compounded nor excused by nationality, nor by any supposedly wider motives.

Apologies at government level can be a sign of maturity, of ability to acknowledge dark moments in a country’s history. In his article "Silence the European way", Yaroslav Hrytsak writes: "Each European nation has taken their exam of conscience although nowhere was this easy." One must undoubtedly welcome the acknowledgement by President Chirac in 1995 of France’s role in the deportation of more than 75 thousand French Jews however the tendency in society is rather to paint an image of France as a country occupied, with victims, courageous Resistance fighters and a handful of traitors. I remember very well the dismay experienced by many Poles, including somebody very close to me, when Gross’ book about the role of Poles in murdering Jews at Jedwabne appeared. The reaction was more or less: "But we were victims, not perpetrators!" That President Kwasniewski, the Church and intelligentsia understood the need to acknowledge guilt for Jedwabne is indeed worthy of respect.

And yet doubts remain. In western countries the stereotype of French brave opponents of Nazism is widespread, while Poles and Ukrainians are often accused of collaboration and anti-Semitism. There are historical reasons, as well as fairly cynical manipulation. The unequivocal fact gets forgotten that it was the French authorities, and not just isolated individuals, that were implicated in the Holocaust. Nor do people take into account the fact that by helping Jews a Pole or Ukrainian risked not just his own life, but his family’s also. Against the background of vague and extremely unfair accusations levelled at a whole nation, or significant part of it, I fear it is not realistic to expect recognition of any kind of collective responsibility for the Holocaust. Poles found it in them to apologise for a specific crime, yet is it reasonable to expect them to feel collective guilt for the crimes of individuals when Poles themselves suffered so terribly?

I have not seen hard evidence that Roman Shukhevych or the leadership of the Ukrainian Resistance Army [UPA] were involved in the Holocaust. I would repeat though that such involvement would undeniably warrant unequivocal condemnation. If any such crime were in fact proven, then I believe that supporters of UPA, and probably the Ukrainian government, would have to condemn it. Yet when there remains no real consensus in society as to the role of the UPA and as to whether Ukraine was occupied only by the Nazis, or also by the Soviet Union, it is perhaps no wonder that calls to apologize arouse irritation in a lot of people.

If there is a European lesson to be learned, and I suspect there is, it is in their pragmatism, the ability to put aside issues which will only divide people in order to take a united stand against anti-Semitism and other forms of xenophobia here and now. I suspect this is indeed more about brutal pragmatism than about full acknowledgement of each country’s responsibility. There were too many divergent points of view, and not just about countries’ role in the War, but also about their responsibility for problems arising from the collapse of the colonial empires. You could argue until the end of the world, or more likely until a new war erupted, about who was to blame, yet what was to be done needed to be decided here an now. People had to live together and no grievances regarding the past would justify inadequate reactions generating new problems and fresh outbreaks of hatred and aggression.

Ukraine would do well to follow this pragmatic approach. There is, undoubtedly, an additional problem in the unrelenting barrage of propaganda and lies with an unmistakeably Soviet odour issuing mainly from Russian-language media outlets, though very often repeated by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of the reasons that these tactics are effective highlights another fundamental problem. New information about the War is constantly being dug up by European researchers however this largely adds detail to a basically clear and universally recognized picture. This is not the case in Ukraine where basic information about WWII continues to be highly coloured by the position of those presenting it. There is no point in shouting that we are being maligned if we are not prepared to be remorselessly objective ourselves.

Stereotypes have a number of apparent advantages: they’re easy to remember, require little painful mental effort and usually save time. Very often it’s a cut and paste job – the same words year in, year out. Problems arise, at least for those who have nothing against hearing the truth, when reality changes and the words apparently describing it don’t. In the last week, which was by no means unusual, I received one alarming statement about the rise in anti-Semitism in Ukraine and read two others on the Internet, both undated, although one had apparently been created or last updated in April 2008. Before examining why that report was outdated when posted, it is worth noting the first comment on the text, from a person signing himself as Alexander: "Shame! And this is in our times! Independent Ukraine was and remains a dirty anti-Semitic country!"

Confronted with such a damning "analysis" of the situation, we can either be silenced or ask the specialists. Viacheslav Likhachev has been carrying out monitoring of anti-Semitism for several years. In a recent article entitled "Trends in anti-Semitism in Ukraine at the beginning of the XXI century: reality and stereotypes", he subjects the stereotypes to one litmus test: how they correlate with empirical data.

Instead of the increase in anti-Semitic crimes so loudly and persistently claimed, it turns out that over the last two years there has actually been a small decrease in the number of attacks on Jews. There have been three victims of street assaults this year. If one counts the two people in Lviv who were slightly injured by two aggressive and seemingly anti-Semitic pensioners (who themselves received worse injuries) in July 2008, the figure stands at five. Last year there were 5 assaults (or 6, but one remained unclear) with 8 (or 9) people being injured. In neither year were there any serious attacks. There has also been a considerable fall in the number of cases of vandalism (chiefly desecration of graves and memorials) in 2008.

It should be stressed that there are no grounds for relaxing. During these two years there has been an increase in the number of hate crimes against people from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. V. Likhachev also notes that the fall in cases of vandalism may be attributable to some court cases where serious sentences were handed down for such offences. In previous years, perpetrators had gone unpunished or received symbolic sentences.

We thus look for assailants so to speak under the streetlight, where the visibility’s better. And anyway we know that they’re there because they once used to hang out there. Obviously we’re not about to say if there are less of them. They’re cunning swine and we’re not going to let them dupe us! .Or we have other reasons for not saying. The result is clear: nobody notices the assailants in their new position with this arousing irritation among law-abiding members of the public, and placing other victims of violence in danger. And while densely continuing to rage, we fail to draw adequate and most obvious conclusions about measures likely to help resolve the problem, such as serious sentences.

With regard to anti-Semitism in political life, the point made by specialist on ultra-nationalist movements Andreas Umland is of particular interest. He singles out Ukraine as the only country in Eastern Europe where no extreme right-wing political factions have managed to get into parliament, despite a lower than usual threshold. Electoral support for the ultra-nationalist "Svoboda" ("Freedom") party, the only force advocating ethnic proportional representation, came to just 0.76% in 2007. Likhachev also points out that the general volume of anti-Semitic propaganda during the election campaign in 2007 was on a different, considerably lower scale, than in 2006.

The main source of anti-Semitic propaganda in 2006 and earlier was, of course, the notorious International Academy for Personnel Management [MAUP]. The enormous rise in anti-Semitic publications from 2002 – 2006 can be directly attributed to MAUP, which according to V. Likhachev produced up to 90% of such material.

"In autumn 2007 for a number of reasons MAUP curtailed its anti-Semitic campaign as dramatically as it launched it. Since September 2007, with the trend continuing in 2008, there has been a sharp fall in the number of anti-Semitic publications. According to the results of monitoring over the first nine months of 2009 we can speak of a tenfold (!) reduction in the number of anti-Semitic publications in Ukrainian regular issues in comparison with the same period in 2007."

This was reported in Likhachev’s regular monitoring bulletins which are the primary source of information in this area. It is therefore disturbing, to say the least, to read the statement and recommendations from a roundtable held apparently to mark the seventieth anniversary of Kristallnacht by the Maimonides Jewish University in Kyiv, some Jewish organizations, as well as an organization which calls itself the "Ukrainian Anti-Fascist Committee" It is baffling how people apparently concerned with combating anti-Semitism could have devoted a major part of a roundtable discussion and subsequent report to raging over information which any human rights organization could have told them was out of date. Even without such advice, the very fact that the sources they quote are from 2002 and 2004 should have made them seek more up-to-date information. If, of course, their aim was indeed to fight anti-Semitism, and it is profoundly upsetting to imagine how on that most terrible anniversary any other objective could have seemed acceptable.

Viacheslav Likhachev also looks at the issue of anti-Semitism in the public consciousness. While suggesting well-founded reservations about the continued validity of the Bogardus Scale, this method has been used for a long time and it is therefore significant that the perceived distance between Ukrainians and Jews fell from 4.6 in 2007 to 4.1 in 2008). This distance is less than for any other minority group in Ukraine, although Poles are now close behind.

If we place ourselves firmly in 2008, while there is no cause for complacency (there never can be), the situation is by no means as bleak as is painted. Those who prefer to stay with old stereotypes, as well as those who positively fuel them, as for example, those who tried to make a "pogrom" out of a squalid act of aggression by two bigoted pensioners, do us all, regardless of ethnic origin, a grave disservice. They generate fear, suspicion and antagonism.

They also distract people when fighting the primitive need for enemies and scapegoats demands constant vigilance. , One of the attacks this year was by skinheads against the Chief Rabbi of Vinnytsa and his three-year-old son. There is no question that they were not attacked as Jews, however harping on about whether or not Ukrainians are innate anti-Semites fails to take the nature and the danger presented by skinheads into account.

Lessons have been learned from the War. We know what created the right conditions for hatred and aggression to fester and spread their disease. We know what the consequences can be. During a time of deep crisis we have no right to disregard knowledge seeped in blood and suffering. There probably are questions unanswered about some Ukrainians’ role in WWII and in the Holocaust and there are undoubtedly some who have eluded justice. How much we all bear responsibility for this remains a matter of debate. For placing any people who stand out in danger, for standing back and allowing the disease of primitive hatred and aggression to spread we bear direct responsibility here and now.

Halya Coynash
Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

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