In a March 18, 2014, speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his now oft-repeated claim that "nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites" led a coup in Ukraine that installed the current interim government.
It was not the first time the Russian government evoked a historical fear to justify their resistance to the mass protests in Ukraine. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a similar argument a month earlier in the Russian daily, Kommersant, and it is a constant refrain of the Kremlin’s powerful propaganda television.
And yet, Putin’s statement caught me -- the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat anti-Semitism -- by surprise. The reasons were countless, but one in particular stood out: When I last visited Ukraine in November 2013, the primary message from meetings with representatives of the Putin-allied Yanukovych government was that "anti-Semitism did not exist in Ukraine."
I was skeptical of the claim then, and even more confounded after Putin’s remarks.
And so, I returned to Ukraine last week to find some answers. During a four-day visit to Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk, I met with Jewish community leaders, Jewish citizens, and officials in the interim Ukrainian government responsible for the Jewish community's security.
In each conversation, the consensus message was patently clear: Members of the Jewish community in Ukraine do not see themselves as victims of Ukrainian government-sponsored anti-Semitism. And where those acts of anti-Semitism have occurred, they are often associated with pro-Russian provocateurs.
The same message has been relayed over and over to our Embassy, to other visiting U.S. government officials, and indeed to the international community. The unfortunate reality is that the situation in Ukraine is rife with misconceptions and misinformation peddled by a Russian government keen on pulling the wool over the eyes of their own citizens and the international community in order to rationalize their attempted illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula and to conceal the mounting suppression of rights in Russia.
Allow me, therefore, to briefly correct some misstatements of facts based on extensive conversations with Jewish community leaders and human rights activists in Ukraine, and reinforced by the reporting of independent international organizations such as the OSCE, the UN and the Council of Europe:
- Local Jewish groups have reported few incidents of anti-Semitism in general across Ukraine: The Head of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine recently said that "since 2007 we have been seeing a gradual decrease in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Ukraine."
- There has been a rise in attacks and threats against members of minorities, including anti-Semitic incidents, in parts of Ukraine where Russian forces and pro-Russian separatists are operating -- the Crimean peninsula and eastern Ukraine. For example, the Chief Reform Rabbi recently fled Crimea following anonymous death threats. Ukraine’s Jewish community widely believes these and other provocations to be committed by pro-Russian actors, not by the Ukrainian government or even by Ukrainian right-wing nationalists.
- The interim Ukraine government condemns anti-Semitism: The interim government officials have condemned all forms of intolerance, in particular anti-Semitism. They have stated their commitment to investigate and find perpetrators of crimes based on anti-Semitism, and they pledged to build an independent Ukraine that respects the many ethnic and religious groups that make up its population.
- The interim Ukraine government is committed to providing security: Where the interim Ukrainian government is in control, there is a heightened degree of security and a keen determination to conduct a free, fair and transparent election on May 25, one in which all of the members of the country’s ethnic and religious groups can have their voices heard.
As I walked through the remaining makeshift tire barricades guarding the once-bustling tent city in Maidan, it was strikingly clear that much has changed in the six months since my visit in November. It wasn’t merely the backdrop of charred buildings or the irrepressible desire for liberty expressed by those still encamped. Rather, it was the overwhelming sense of support for a united, independent Ukraine free from corruption, free from disinformation, and free from the dictates of their neighbor to the East. Ukrainians of all stripes deserve nothing less.
About the Author: Ira Forman serves as U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.