MONTREAL — Regardless of what might be said for public consumption, Jews in both Russia and Ukraine aren’t particularly perturbed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent actions in the region, says a local veteran Russian-Jewish journalist who’s in regular, close contact with Jews in both areas.
If anything, Mark Groysberg suggested, Ukrainian Jews have been buoyed by the May 25 election of billionaire candy-maker Petro Poroshenko as a stabilizing force against pro-Russian nationalists in Ukraine, while Russian Jews see Putin as someone who will make sure no harm comes their way.
In March, four months after the sudden ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, Putin used the ensuing chaos to orchestrate a referendum to return the Ukrainian territory of Crimea to Russian possession, despite protests by the world community and fears he might have plans to annex the entire country.
Crimea has a Jewish population of about 15,000 out of a total of two million.
“It’s very complex,” was a phrase invoked repeatedly by Groysberg, 65, who has been publishing Voice of Community, a bi-weekly Russian-language newspaper geared for Montreal’s Russian-speaking Jews, for 20 years.
“There’s been provocation on both sides.”
Groysberg said Putin has demonstrated his authoritarian streak and seems to want to return Russia to the days of the czarist or Soviet empires. He’s also played the “Jewish card” by intimating that Ukrainian Jews might face anti-Semitic peril because of rising ultra-nationalist elements within Ukraine.
In March, a letter to that effect sent to Putin “on behalf of” Ukrainian Jewry and signed by pro-Putin Russian Jewish leaders voiced the same fears, but that scenario has largely failed to unfold, Groysberg said.
“While there have been incidents occurring against minorities [in Ukraine], it has been at a very low level,” Groysberg said.
Joseph Zisels, head of the Association of Jewish Organizations of Ukraine, recently said, “We are faced with a familiar model of Russian propaganda” that’s trying to portray Ukraine as risky for Jews.
Zisels said anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine are declining, and that in 2013, only 13 were reported there, compared to hundreds across the rest of Europe.
Similarly, just this month, according to the Jerusalem Post, Chabad in Ukraine as well as the Russian Jewish Congress denied media reports that Jews were on the verge of fleeing cosmopolitan Odessa, Ukraine’s third-largest city, with 30,000 Jews, after the deaths in early May of 42 people in street battles between supporters of the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian protesters.
Zisels said the election of Poroshenko and the poor showing by nationalist candidates demonstrate the failure of Russian propagandists “to portray Ukrainian society as intolerant.”
Meanwhile, Kiev Jewish community head Alexander Levin noted that Jewish presidential candidate Vadim Rabinovitch garnered more votes than a couple of ultra-nationalist candidates, proving that in Ukraine, “there is no policy of anti-Semitism, period,” JTA reported.
Groysberg, a native of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev who has not been back there since arriving in Montreal in the late 1980s, said that just like the general population, Jews in both Russia and Ukraine tend to prefer stability over instability, food over want and, historically, authoritarianism over democracy.
The latter will change, Groysberg said, but it will be a very slow process that could take generations.
“The Jews [of Russia and Ukraine] have always been very proud, very loyal,” he said. “Two hundred thousand died fighting for Russia during World War II.”