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Demands That Jews Register in Eastern Ukraine Are Denounced, and Denied

Apr 18, 2014

New York Times

Letter written in Russian saying that Jews in the Ukraine must register with the government

Demands That Jews Register in Eastern Ukraine Are Denounced, and Denied


DONETSK, Ukraine — Worshipers at the Bet Menakhem-Mendl synagogue in this eastern Ukrainian city confronted a horrifying scene as they left a Passover service this week: masked men on a sidewalk handing out leaflets demanding that Jews register and pay a fine or leave the area, witnesses said.

That the leaflets appeared in a highly uncertain political context did little to calm nerves or to dampen high-level international condemnation, including from Secretary of State John Kerry, who said Thursday in Geneva that “just in the last couple of days, notices were sent to Jews in one city indicating that they had to identify themselves as Jews.”

The leaflets were supposedly signed by Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the newly declared and unrecognized state that claims to represent ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. But that group and other pro-Russian groups quickly denied they had anything to do with them.

“This has nothing to do with us; it is a provocation,” said Alexander Maltsev, a spokesman for the People’s Republic, in a telephone interview. He said he did not know who was responsible, or their motives.

The city, the center of a coal-mining region in Ukraine, has since Saturday fallen largely under the control of pro-Russian militants who have justified their uprising as a response to what they call the fascism and anti-Semitism of the new central government in Kiev. So it was a surprise that the fliers, addressed to the “Jews of Donetsk,” claimed to have come from the headquarters of the Donetsk Republic.

The leaflets ordered Jews to register at Room 514 in the building used as the headquarters to pay $50 each, or “the guilty ones would be deprived of their citizenship and deported outside the republic and their property confiscated.”

They blurred over recent history, saying that the “leaders of the Jewish community of Ukraine supported the Bandera Junta,” the group’s name for the new Ukrainian government and a reference to the legendary Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera. The fliers were handed out Wednesday. Identical ones were slipped under car windshield wipers on nearby streets. All was quiet on Thursday around the synagogue, a modest brick building with bas-relief menorahs on the double entryway doors.

Mr. Maltsev, the spokesman, said Mr. Pushilin had not written, signed or approved any text demanding that Jewish residents register. “How could he do such a thing?” Mr. Maltsev said. “He understands that many different kinds of people live here.”

Room 514 was empty on Thursday, and militants milling about the building said that no one ever intended to set up a registry for Jews there.

Instead, Stanislav Shumaiko, a protester in the building, said the fliers were clearly the work of the government in Kiev and intended to discredit the Donetsk Republic. “We are laughing; this is propaganda,” he said.

Ukrainian Jewish groups have mostly rejected the Russian government’s assertion that the new authorities in Kiev are anti-Semitic, the claim also made by militants here, while remaining on guard against the prospect that the country’s political turmoil will stir up old and dark hatreds.

That for now the anti-Semitic language and actions seem to be directed at other targets in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, rather than Jews, is little consolation.

“We have seen a series of cynical and politically manipulative uses and accusations of anti-Semitism in Ukraine over the past year,” Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement issued Thursday. “The perpetrators and their targets are opposing politicians and political movements, but the true victims are the Jewish communities. We strongly condemn the anti-Semitic content, but also all attempts to use anti-Semitism for political purposes.”

In the conflict, each side often accuses the other of “provocations.” Though pro-Russian militants claim that Ukrainian nationalists operate underground in eastern Ukraine, there is no evidence this is the case. There is similarly little concrete evidence that pro-Russian militants might be masquerading as nationalists to galvanize public opinion here against Kiev, an allegation that has surfaced there.

Speaking in Geneva after diplomatic talks with Russia, the European Union and Ukraine to resolve the Ukraine crisis, Mr. Kerry said that all participants “strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism, and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism.”

Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting from Geneva.


Who Is Behind Letters Ordering Jews in East Ukraine to Register?

By Jim Maceda and Albina Kovalyova

DONETSK, Ukraine - Masked men handed out leaflets telling Jews to register with pro-Russian separatists who had taken over a government office in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, a witness told NBC News on Friday.

"There were about 100 of us outside the synagogue after Passover eve prayers [on Wednesday] when we saw three masked men in the crowd who started to hand out letters," Yosef Gurevitz said. "One of them tried to tape one on the synagogue door. Then they quickly left. When I read the letter I was in shock."

A leaflet distributed in Donetsk, Ukraine calling for all Jews over 16 years old to register as Jews.

It was not clear who was behind the leaflets and NBC News could not independently confirm Gurevitz's account.

The letters said Jews must register with a "commissar" at the regional government headquarters by May 3, according to a Reuters translation.

"It's very worrying," said Gurevitz, who is a Brooklyn native visiting Ukraine with his family. "We're hoping its just a provocation but I always thought the days that Jews would become scapegoats for whatever reason were long over."

The letters were purported to be the work of a pro-Russian group that took over public buildings and wants to end rule by the new Ukrainian government in Kiev.

Kirill Rudenko, a spokesman for the pro-Russian People's Republic of Donbass, told Reuters the leaflet was "complete rubbish" and "we made no such demands on Jews."

On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned suggestions that Jews had been ordered to register.

Kerry Calls Anti-Semitism Allegations in Ukraine 'Grotesque'

Once home to a large Jewish population devastated by the Holocaust, Ukraine has seen a rise in attacks on Jews in recent months. Everyone interviewed by NBC News said they had never before witnessed anti-Semitic behavior in Donetsk.

Since Ukraine's pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that he's worried about rising anti-Semitic forces in the region.

- Reuters contributed to this report

First published April 18th 2014, 6:14 am