In Europe, it has often been dangerous for Jews to be Jews. And Easter in particular has led to frenzied antisemitism, as priests commonly riled up parishioners with a selective retelling of the crucifixion story, after which throngs would emerge from churches and attack Jewish fellow residents.
This is a generalization, of course. Many Easters have passed peacefully in many parts of Europe. But Jew-bashing was a common occurrence with formal and informal sanction. Children sometimes came home from school with arts and crafts mallets to be used symbolically to hammer the Jews on Easter weekend. Predictably in such an environment, on many, many occasions, the hammering was not symbolic.
So it was this past weekend, when firebombs were reportedly thrown through the windows of the main synagogue in the Ukrainian city of Nikolayev. Thankfully, prayers were not taking place at the time and no one was injured. But the traumatized and beleaguered community must certainly have heard echoes of the past in this act of contemporary vandalism and hate.
Ukraine, of course, is the centre of global anxieties, verging as it does on something between a civil war among ethnic Russian and Ukrainian citizens and an incipient full-scale invasion by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has already invaded and annexed Crimea.
It may be an unofficial aspect of our tradition to always expect the worst even while hoping for the best, so it may not have come as a complete surprise to some of us that Easter weekend did not pass without an unfortunate incident. Particularly in the aftermath of another chilling incident in the days before the firebombing. A photocopied sheet was spread throughout parts of Ukraine during Passover declaring that Jews over the age of 16 must register at the (Russian-occupied) government building in Donetsk, paying a $50 registration fee and listing all real estate owned. The echoes of the past this poster elicited were obvious and outrage went viral.
From the start, there was uncertainty about the provenance of the sheet and whether it was being distributed on behalf of an official/ government agency. By the weekend, media were reporting that the poster had been “debunked,” that it was not issued by authorities. If true – because the “debunking” report is no more certain than the original belief that it came from whatever counts as a government in the region now – it would be a bit of a relief. But there should be no great celebration. In recent weeks, as Ukraine and Russia have become more and more conflicted, Jewish citizens of Ukraine have found themselves in an historically familiar and dangerously undesirable position. As has been so often the case in Europe, sides in the conflict are either demanding Jewish allegiance or scapegoating Jews.
Ukraine has a small but overt, visible and thriving neo-Nazi movement – with the support of about one in 10 Ukrainians – which is trouble enough. Putin did not help matters when he suggested recently that Russian influence in Ukraine would be good for the Jews because of rampant antisemitism there. There could hardly be a more dangerous position for Ukrainian Jews than to be seen as a justification for Russian incursion (as if Russia or Putin have records worthy of Jewish admiration).
Leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish community, which traditionally has been more Russian-speaking than Ukrainian-speaking, stood firm with their Ukrainian fellow citizens against Putin’s assertions that Ukraine is a hotbed of Jew-hatred.
“Your certainty about the growth of antisemitism in Ukraine, which you expressed at your press conference, also does not correspond to the actual facts,” rabbis and other leading figures in the community wrote in an open letter to the Russian president. “Perhaps you got Ukraine confused with Russia, where Jewish organizations have noticed growth in antisemitic tendencies last year.”
All these decades and centuries later, our coreligionists still struggle to find a place of welcome in their home countries, amid the nationalist and racial conflicts of Europe. Of course, we should not assume this is a far-away problem. The murders at two Jewish institutions in Kansas City last week is proof that antisemitism exists in our own backyards, as well, and we will continue to watch developments in the region and closer to home with wariness and hope, prepared to speak out and act on behalf of Jews – and anyone – who is endangered.