Are Ukraine's Jews Screwed?

As a temporary government stands up in Kiev and all hell breaks loose with pro-Russian protesters in Crimea, the news is sounding grimmer and grimmer for Ukraine's Jewish minority.

Earlier this week, a synagogue in the country's southeast was firebombed. There have been multiple reported beatings of Jews and acts of vandalism at Kiev synagogues. A leading rabbi in Kiev has called for Jews to leave the city and the country, if possible—though he later said he was stressing that it's dangerous for everyone out there—and the Israeli embassy has reportedly advised members of the Jewish community to stay off the streets.

The "Euromaidan" protests and clashes that have swept Kiev over the last few months are about the relative influences of Russia and Western Europe in Ukraine's trade and economic policy. But Independence Square has played host to a motley crew of ultra-nationalists, gay-bashers, and neo-Nazis alongside the run-of-the-mill pro-Europe activists.

Pro-Russian commentators and an increasing number of Westerners argue, in fact, that the revolutionary movement that's swept much of the country isn't just supported but led by these right-wing fascists, and it's unleashing hell on the usual scapegoats: minorities, immigrants, and Jews.

It's right to be skeptical of these arguments, as in some cases their proponents have been working with public relations firms linked to President Viktor Yanukovich's Russian faction. But there's some evidence for them: Anarchists and leftists who've gone out to the ramparts say they weren't exactly welcomed by some of the hardcore rightists on the scene. These include the nascent "Right Sector," a bunch of young enterprising anti-gay nationalists with a fascist militarist bent—who come right out and say that they were never in favor of Ukraine's economic integration into the West, a major demand of the mainstream Euromaidan protesters.

They're regimented and well-trained. They're fascists, you know! Here they are organizing on the street for combatives training, in a photo sent by an observer to the Guardian:

Are Ukraine's Jews Screwed?

But by far, the worst of the bunch are the hooligans of the Svoboda party. These are God's special little children, if God were a gay-bashing nativist Nazi-loving Ukrainian nationalist front. Svoboda means freedom, though the party stands for anything but. What do they stand for? Oh, you know, the usual stuff: Their original name and logo were derived from Hitler's Nazi Party.

They like to march out every now and then carrying portraits of Stepan Bandera, a useful nationalist idiot who did some anti-Soviet partisan work for Hitler. They're busy, hateful little shitkickers. And they're a vocal, if numerically inferior, part of the political coalition with other leaders like Vitaly Klitschko and Yulia Tymoshenko who have taken over Kiev.

Here's a picture of Svoboda's dipshit leader getting backup from U.S. Sens. John McCain and Chris Murphy in December:

Are Ukraine's Jews Screwed?

Here is a guy putting up a white power flag between a Confederate battle standard and Ukrainian and Svoboda flags in a Kievan municipal building after it was taken over by protesters:

In this atmosphere, plenty of critics are asking: Should the West distance itself from the revolutionaries?

This is not an academic question reserved for uppity web pundits. Anti-Semitism has a long and hoary history in Ukraine. I should know; my Weinstein ancestors supposedly braved pogroms by Cossacks and Tatars for centuries in Kamenetz-Podolsk, a western citadel town, before bugging out in the 19th century—part of numerous waves of Jewish refugees who fled the nation to join the diaspora in Western Europe, the U.S., and eventually, Israel. World War II and the Holocaust are believed to have wiped out two-thirds of those who remained.

But Jewish history in Ukraine is ancient, and not everyone split for greener pastures over the centuries of famine, war, and sectarian hatred. Estimates of how many Jews remain in Ukraine are as various, and probably as reliable, as the arguments over who's leading the protest movement. One Israeli ministry estimates 250,000 Jews live there, half of whom are in Kiev. The European Jewish Congress says 300,000 to 400,000; the 2012 Annual Jewish Year Book says 67,000; the last Ukrainian census, in 2001, estimated 104,000.

Speaking of the census, here's a funny quirk of demographics, not just in Ukraine, but in Russia and most of the former Soviet states: They classify "Jew" as a nationality, alongside Russian, Ukrainian, Tatar, Pole, et cetera. The implicit message being: There's no way to be Ukrainian and Jewish.

That, more than the fascist fancies of Svoboda and Right Sector dead-end storm-troopers, may ultimately be what screws the remaining Jews in Ukraine: The country and the region have never liked them all that much. Being called a zhid is still a major-league fuck-you in most of the kinda-sorta-Russophone world. The fascists in Kiev are bad, but there are awful anti-Semites among the Crimean Tatars and Russian military retirees and Cossacks who are rising up against the revolution in Eastern Ukraine, too.

Consider this: Below is a picture from a ceremony last summer commemorating the Ukrainian war dead in the village of Yaseniv in Western Ukraine. The Nazi Ukrainian war dead. The dude on the right is a surviving member of the SS Galicia division, a unit of mostly Ukrainian volunteers fighting for the Reich. The kid on the left, well, he's just an enterprising young man with a "WHITE PRIDE WORLDWIDE" T-shirt. And there's an assortment of Svobodniks in the background.

Are Ukraine's Jews Screwed?

This is the pre-revolutionary cultural status quo in Ukraine.

Now, take away street policing. Make this a state that's somewhat drunkenly weaving between stable governments, goaded on not just by native rightists but by Russian puppeteers and their sympathizers, too. In the absence of laws, and enforcers of laws, all of that cultural antipathy starbursts, and it burns the Jewish community, and every other hated group that doesn't have a champion.

So: Yes, there are anti-Semitic, fascist elements who are relatively well-placed among the revolutionaries who booted Viktor Yanukovich out of the presidential mansion. But the revolution itself isn't a Nazi revolution, and defenders of the previous oligarchy aren't exactly friends of the tribe, either. No side is especially friendly to Jews or any other religious, ethnic, or sexual minority, because this is Ukraine.

But there are rays of hope: First, among young Jews themselves, many of whom have been on the front lines in Kiev. "I want to let you know that lots of people who study Hebrew together with me are going to Euromaidan after classes every single day," one young woman says on a video recorded on the street several weeks ago. "My friends, my coworkers from the Jewish Channel go to the Maidan too… Here, at Euromaidan, it doesn't matter which nationality you are."

Then there are the antifascists, the students, the left-leaning demonstrators, the pacifists, who estimate that right-wing dullards make up about 30 percent of the protesters—an outsize bunch, considering their poor showings at the polls. "Lots of people want to manipulate the people here," one antifascist says. But on the whole, they're simply against the old order and in favor of a more participatory democracy.

Unless and until a strong national government led by non-batshit elements establishes control over the country, minority safety will not be assured. Right now, the odds of that happening anytime soon aren't looking too good, and we should all be concerned about that.

The most politically viable elements out there—Klitschko's Democratic Alliance for Reform and Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party—aren't without their sins, but they aren't ultranationalist righties or Moscow stooges, either. They've benefited from the regimentation of a bunch of knuckle-dragging soccer toughs with crude ideologies in Independence Square, but they're probably the best hope for an intermediate state of maximum security and minimum abuses of rights.

So don't dismiss the Euromaidan movement: Support its nonviolent elements, which are many. Blaming the whole revolutionary gaggle for the current wave of anti-Semitism in Ukraine is like blaming the river when your crappy dam breaks. Instead of hand-wringing about the tideline, you help build a better dam. Because the river isn't gonna stop flowing anytime soon.

[Main photo: Getty Images; other photo credits: AP]