Pushing back against accusations that it is inflating the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Ukraine as part of the conflict between the two countries, Russia last week asserted that Kiev has been intentionally playing down instances of violence against Jews and other minorities.
Responding to Russian media reports about a series of attacks last month against Jews in Odessa, Evgeny Piskunov, the second secretary of the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that while his government could not corroborate the specific incidents described, he believes that violence against minorities is frequently concealed by Ukraine.
Following last winter’s Euromaidan revolution, the authorities in Kiev have done “their utmost to cover up extremists’ attacks on ethnic and religious minorities, including Russians and Jews, and prevent their coverage in the media with an obvious aim to avoid strong international response to such acts,” Piskunov said.
“Kiev failed to hide some crimes against representatives of the Jewish community of Ukraine,” he added.
Jewish leaders from Odessa have disputed the reports of anti-Semitic attacks, stating that no such incidents had occurred and that they had not experienced any rise in anti-Semitism.
While a series of anti-Semitic attacks that took place during the anti-Russian uprising led to worries over communal safety, such concerns have faded, though not disappeared, following the failing fortunes of ultra-nationalist political factions such as Svoboda and the emergence of the civil war in the country’s east.
Representatives of the Ukrainian Jewish community have challenged Russia’s assertion that their government is anti-Semitic, with some going so far as to accuse Moscow of instigating anti-Semitic provocations in order to justify its interventions.
Not only is Ukraine attempting to whitewash anti-Semitism, but it has, through the western media, disparaged Russia unfairly, Piskunov added.
The press, “often trying to follow the official propaganda of the authorities in Kiev, intentionally or not, demonize Russia’s role in the conflict,” he said, recommending that reporters stick to Russian government websites and the state-run media to ascertain “what Russia really does or thinks.”
There has been a great deal of misinformation on both sides, noted Human Rights Watch researcher Yulia Gorbunova, who said that “Russian officials and state media grossly distorted, manipulated, and at times invented information about the conflict.”
“In response, the Ukraine government imposed excessive restrictions on freedom of media, including by banning Russian channels and barring journalists from the country,” she added.
Piskunov’s accusations elicited an angry response from Ukrainian Jewish leaders.
“As Jewish organizations we would never let anyone to cover-up anti-Semitic incidents,” said Eduard Dolinsky of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee.
“Western media [is] always particularly sensitive to anti-Semitism and critical of Ukrainian governments. Therefore I can’t imagine this kind of conspiracy.”
“Ukrainian authorities had never engaged in fixing crimes on ethnic or religious grounds,” agreed Josef Zissels, the president of the Vaad Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine.
“It is quite probable that over half of the anti-Semitic incidents of the recent year are provocations, committed to support and enrich with facts the powerful propaganda campaign of the former Ukrainian and current Russian government against the democratic, pro-European movement in Ukraine,” he said.
As both Russia and Ukraine have positioned themselves as protectors of the Jewish community, anti-Semitism has become another weapon in the propaganda battle accompanying the fighting on the battlefield.
“It is obvious that just as the Russians have a vested interest in highlighting such incidents, to the extent that they really occur, the Ukrainians have a vested interest in playing them down, for obvious reason,” said Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. ”The question is how to verify whether the reports from Ukraine, and especially from eastern Ukraine, are accurate.”
One Ukrainian communal figure, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while anti-Semitism isn’t the pressing concern that Moscow makes it out to be, as part of this propaganda war, Ukraine has attempted to downplay anti-Semitic incidents when they occur.
“We know of the attack on the synagogue in Kiev and other attacks which have not hit the news,” he said, referring to the pre-Rosh Hashana firebombing of a synagogue in the capital that received little attention outside of the Jewish press. “That doesn’t mean it’s as rampant or widespread as the Russians make out but it is there, specifically against the pro-Russians.”