Since the fighting between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists began in April, hundreds of Jews from Donetsk and Luhansk have left their lives and belongings and fled to a makeshift refugee camp run by Chabad. They are not alone. In the first five months of 2014 alone, more than 1,550 Jews have immigrated from Ukraine to Israel (more than double the 693 who arrived in the corresponding period last year), according to the Jewish Agency for Israel.
What is the role of anti-Semitism in this max exodus? We asked Mark Levin, who has followed anti-Semitic trends for more than 20 years as executive director of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (formerly the National Conference on Soviet Jewry) since 1992. Levin explains why the anti-Jewish sentiment in Ukraine isn’t state-sponsored, but in other parts of Europe, it has entered civil society.—Rachel E. Gross
Hundreds of Jews have been fleeing the unstable political and economic situation in Ukraine. What misconceptions exist about the situation?
There’s a misperception about the state of the Jewish community in Ukraine. They are not living in a fascist, neo-Nazi state.
At the same time, there has been, there is, and there probably will be anti-Semitism in Ukraine for the foreseeable future. But it’s not state-sponsored anti-Semitism. There’s a responsive government in place, there are public figures who are willing to address the issue. It’s not by accident that the Ukrainian prime minister and other senior officials came out and condemned the leaflet calling for Jews to register with the state that was being circulated in Donetsk. The most important thing for people to understand is that Jews are not being targeted because they’re Jews—except in some isolated cases.
There are anti-Semitic elements in Ukraine. But if you look at the incidents that took place, they took place in the far eastern and southern parts of the country, which are controlled by separatists. There have not been any anti-Semitic incidents in western Ukraine, which is supposed to be the hotbed of ultra-nationalism. These provocations were most likely initiated by pro-separatist groups. Since the beginning of the crisis, the Russian government has invested in a large-scale public relations campaign to paint a negative picture of Ukraine.
Is there any connection between the Ukrainian government and neo-Nazis?
There is no connection. There are far-right political forces in Ukraine, but the last presidential election showed how much support they have. The one Jewish candidate who ran for president got more votes than the two far-right candidates put together; The two far-right candidates got less than 2 percent of the votes. (Read an op-ed by Levin here.)
What is the greatest threat to Jews in this part of the world?
The political and economic uncertainty. I don’t want to diminish our concern about anti-Semitism; Again, we have been on the forefront of trying to have the Ukrainian government and others focus on what we see as there are real threats of anti-Semitism in Ukraine. But right now, everything is overshadowed by the specter of war.
There has been much attention paid to the recent flare-up of anti-Semitism in Europe. As someone who has followed these issues for more than 20 years, how bad is the situation? Is it a crisis, or a catastrophe?
Can it be both? This is as bad as I can ever remember it being in my entire professional career. This goes way beyond anger being directed toward Israel. There is a level of anti-Semitism that’s being promoted in Europe in away that I’ve never seen before. Seventy years is a long time, but it’s not that long when you look at European history. We’re getting ready to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the liberation of the camps, but look at what’s happened to certain Jewish populations in the European world over the past three months. Its not just Muslims living in Europe—these attitudes are cutting across all parts of the European population.
Do you think the trend will continue, or is it a temporary response to events in Israel-Gaza?
It’s gotten into civil society. Governance and civil society have to remain engaged or become more engaged otherwise this is not going to be a short-term problem, it’s going to be a long term problem. It’s too easy of an excuse to say that it’s tied to Israel’s response to Hamas. In certain places it was happening before the crisis began. Things were already percolating.