Anti-Semitism in Ukraine in 2018: loud statements, minor incidents

The line graph shows a sharp decline in the number of incidents in 2018.
Anti-Semitic Crimes Statistics: (Blue line): Number of recorded incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism; (Orange line): Number of victims in anti-Semitic incidents.

The topic of anti-Semitism in Ukraine last year assuredly occupied an important place in the international Jewish agenda. The issue was discussed and condemned, denied and explained. It has caused concern among American politicians and Israeli ministers, Nazi hunters, and Al Jazeera journalists. A lot of fuss was caused by a letter written by U.S. congressmen, who lumped torchlight processions together with memory politics, and even accused the Ukrainian government of state-supported anti-Semitism.

I must admit that I would prefer a separate discussion of the commemorative practices in recent years, including some of their controversial points. It is my deep conviction, based on professional experience, that the politics of memory, including one that is grounded in the conservative spirit of romantic nationalism, has nothing to do with manifestations of anti-Semitism and does not affect the level of xenophobia and the number of hate crimes. I think that it is a fundamentally erroneous idea to assign the term “anti-Semitism” to initiatives in the field of Holocaust remembrance, the Second World War, or the struggle for Ukraine’s independence, which do not correspond to someone’s ideas of how to remember and grieve correctly. Understanding the logic of such accusations in general, I think it is deeply flawed. Here is a typical example that struck me as absurd. In one overview, the brochure Ukraine in the Second World War was called anti-Semitic. Inasmuch as it was issued by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, such an assessment assumes the character of an accusation of state anti-Semitism. What failed to please the fighters against “historical revisionism”? Of the book’s 28 pages, two are entirely devoted to the Holocaust. However, even though the authors of the brochure discuss collaboration in another context, they do not write anything about the participation of Ukrainians in the destruction of Jews. It was precisely for this reason that the text was mentioned in the overview of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.

Neither is anything constructive added to the public debate by the astounding capacity of accusers to ignore attempts to put forward their claims properly. The latest glaring example is the statement issued by the Israeli Ambassador [to Ukraine], who declared that Stepan Bandera “directly participated in terrible anti-Semitic crimes.”

A common feature of last year’s thunderous statements about Ukrainian anti-Semitism is that they are almost completely divorced from reality, which leads to inadequate assessments. The statements du jour about the “unprecedented growth” [of anti-Semitism] (twofold compared to the previous year, according to some particularly eccentric “experts”), which have been repeated constantly in the last ten years, do not imply any familiarity with statistics.

Meanwhile, it is not so difficult to look at the facts. For many years the VAAD of Ukraine has been systematically monitoring manifestations of anti-Semitism. In fact, no other statistics on anti-Semitic crimes exist in Ukraine. The accumulated data make it easy to judge both the dynamics and the most significant aspects of the problem at the present time.

Of course, one incident suffices to speculate on emotions, because even a single case of anti- Semitism is unacceptable. Often, however, such an approach leads to cosmic generalizations of cosmic stupidity.

Without purporting to make global generalizations, I prefer to deal with facts. Thus, according to my monitoring, in 2018 there were no cases of anti-Semitic violence, and this was the case in 2017 as well.

True, there was one case where a conflict turned into a physical altercation: the assailant shouted profanities at the victim, including anti-Semitic slurs. However, anti-Semitism was neither the cause of the attack nor an essential part of the entire conflict.

If we talk about dynamics, in the last fifteen years they have looked like this: in 2004 eight people were injured as a result of violent anti-Semitic incidents; in 2005—thirteen; in 2006 and 2007—eight; in 2008—five; and in 2009 and 2010—one. In 2011 there was no anti-Semitic violence; in 2012, four people were injured (as a result of three incidents); in 2013 and 2014, the statistics remained unchanged, with four people injured; and in 2015 one person was injured, as in 2016.

In addition to quantitative characteristics, it may be noted that a wave of the most brutal street attacks that truly threatened the lives of the victims occurred in the years 2005–2007.

So, I will formulate the first important thesis: there is simply no anti-Semitic violence in Ukraine. Ukrainian Jews are not exposed to direct physical danger.

What anti-Semitic crimes were recorded during the course of the monitoring? First of all, vandalism.

By vandalism, I mean both physical damage to buildings of Jewish infrastructure (synagogues, community centers), gravestones in Jewish cemeteries, and memorials honoring Holocaust victims, for example, glass being smashed or arson, as well as anti-Semitic and/or neo-Nazi graffiti on such installations. There were twelve such incidents in 2018. Verification of  two cases has not been completed yet and the final figure may differ slightly, but even a clarification of the information will not significantly affect the second point: Last year the number of incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism decreased by half compared to the previous year.

Incidents of this kind recorded in the past year include: the desecration of the memorial to the grieving mother in Poltava; the burning of the memorial to Holocaust victims in Ternopil; graffiti and vandalism targeting the “squares of memory” installed in Lviv; etc. In this same category I included a smoke grenade that was thrown into a Lviv bookshop, where a lecture on the Holocaust was slated to be held. Let me remind you that in 2014 there were 23 cases of vandalism, in 2015—22, in 2016—19 cases, and in 2017—24. Why was there such a significant decline last year? You can make a few assumptions.

To begin with, the wave of incidents related to anti-Semitic vandalism, which began in 2014, is in decline. This was clearly connected with the post-revolutionary situation and the beginning of Russian aggression. We can say that, against the background of the victims and the horrors of the confrontation on the Maidan and the war, there was a public legitimization of symbolic violence. After the beatings, torture, killings, and fighting that involved human victims, acts of xenophobic vandalism—graffiti daubed on walls and monuments, smashing glass, or even arson—were not perceived as a truly serious problem by part of society.

Another factor that contributed to the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in 2014–2017 was, of course, the Jewish community’s active support of the Ukrainian government and the participation of its “iconic” figures in the defense of Ukrainian independence, state sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Quite naturally, this provoked anti-Semitic manifestations on the part of pro-Russian separatists. Anti-Semitic views are already quite widespread among people who adhere to the ideology of Russian nationalism, so when the situation worsened, parts of the Jewish community infrastructure became “natural” victims of aggression on their part. Earlier, judging by the inscriptions and symbols used by anti-Semites to desecrate Jewish targets, the criminals were carriers of radical nationalist or overtly neo-Nazi views. In 2014 vandals of the pro-Soviet or pro-Russian ideological persuasion became more active.

Finally, judging by available but incomplete information, the significant number of incidents reported in recent years has been part and parcel of provocations organized by pro-Russian forces aiming to destabilize the situation in Ukraine and to discredit the new government in the international arena. Speculation on anti-Semitism since the beginning of the aggression has been an important part of the Russian information war. However, like any artificial phenomenon, provocative anti-Semitism cannot be a long-term trend, as it depends entirely on the allocation of funds and resources from the outside.

What, in addition to an analysis of anti-Ukrainian information campaigns, allows us to speak confidently about the provocative nature of the number of anti-Semitic incidents? The work of law enforcement. Since the end of 2017 several groups of provocateurs have been identified and arrested. According to the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, they are responsible for a significant proportion of the acts of vandalism that have been committed in recent years. Similar cases have been recorded not just in the sphere of anti-Semitism. The organizers and perpetrators of a number of anti-Polish and anti-Hungarian provocations were also detained. Of course, it is possible not to put trust, as some observers do, in the Ukrainian law enforcement authorities. However, one such international group was arrested by the Polish police and brought to trial in Cracow.

The suppression of the activities of anti-Semitic provocateurs has had a positive impact on the situation. It is not just that specific criminals are no longer setting fire to synagogues and desecrating monuments. The effectiveness of such provocations in terms of information campaigns have fallen sharply since several gangs have been exposed, and the reasons for supporting such activities by anti-Ukrainian forces have diminished. Therefore, I would like to express cautious optimism here. The reduction in the number of incidents of anti-Semitic vandalism, compared to the pre-war level, may become a stable trend (although, of course, we cannot exclude new provocations in connection with the election campaign).

Does all this mean that the problem of anti-Semitism does not exist in Ukraine? This is of course not the case. Despite some improvement in the situation, the number of crimes investigated and prosecuted for acts of anti-Semitic vandalism leaves much to be desired. The Jewish community and Ukrainian society as a whole would like to see more effective work on the part of law enforcement agencies. Anti-Semitic vandalism continues to be categorized without regard to the perpetrators’ motive. This applies to all xenophobic crimes, from the arson committed at the Hungarian cultural center to the deadly attack on a Roma camp. The lack of adequate qualifications has a negative impact on the motivation of investigators and makes it impossible to maintain official statistics on hate crimes. In addition, the commission of a racist or religious hate crime is an aggravating factor under the Criminal Code and carries a more severe penalty. However, that is not even that important. International practice demonstrates that in order to prevent crimes, the punishment for them should be not so much severe as inevitable. We still have problems with that.

Another problem is that there is impunity for anti-Semitic public statements. As a result of public pressure, criminal proceedings can be opened. However, despite the strong statements of the Minister of Internal Affairs and even the President, no one has been held accountable for inciting intolerance. In some cases, the police even sabotage the opening of a case. The unbridled editorial published in the newspaper Chortkiv Herald, the speech delivered at a rally in Odesa, the fiery speeches of the mayor of the town of Skole, which were posted on YouTube, the social media posts of the leader of the Fastiv branch of the Svoboda Party, the provocative statements that a military prosecutor made in an interview, and many other anti-Semitic statements remain unpunished. Public condemnation and the reactions of civil society structures have often been the only response to these offences.

Unlike many observers who are genuinely indignant or those who are cynically inciting hysteria, I do not believe that the presence of anti-Semitic messages in the information space necessarily leads to violence against Jews. Ukraine is one of the safest countries in Europe in terms of the likelihood of anti-Semitic attacks. However, the sharp discrepancy between the official statements of state leaders and established practice is striking. An impunity for blatant anti-Semitic propaganda is spoiling the mood not just for Ukrainian Jews. Like anti-Semitic vandalism, it harms the country’s image, and unlike the desecration of synagogues, this phenomenon cannot be attributed to provocateurs. The passivity of the state can be explained (for example, by the imperfect nature of the legislative framework), but it is difficult to justify.

Obviously, this is the very sphere of power in which the authorities will have to work on mistakes during the year.

Viacheslav Likhachev
Special to the Hadashot, № 2, February 2019

Originally appeared in Russian @VAAD

Translated from the Russian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.