Ukraine’s Jewish community has jumped to the defence of “anti-Semitic” protesters who last month toppled the former president and this week brought the country to the brink of war with Russia.
Jewish leaders from across the world of business, politics and religion rallied round the new government in the capital Kyiv, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin railed against a “coup” led by “rampant fascists and anti-Semites”.
Dozens of Jewish organisations signed an open letter warning Putin to back off, as tensions rose in the country which is bigger than France and divided between those with pro-Russian and pro-European sympathies.
“The bulk of the Jewish community supports the protests,” said Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, who met US Secretary of State John Kerry in the capital on Tuesday.
“[Former President] Yanukovich was highly corrupt,” he said. “The protesters fought for freedom and democracy, for European values and standards. We support that. A leaning towards Europe can only benefit Ukraine’s Jews.”
Dukhovny, who said he stood side-by-side with his congregation and other Ukrainians in Independence Square last month, gave Kerry a book on Jewish wisdom, saying: “That’s what Ukraine needs right now.”
As the fledgling government took shape, Jewish industrialists and politicians showed their support and took their place at the table.
Billionaire businessman Ihor Kolomoisky, who co-owns the Jewish News One TV channel and holds dual Israeli citizenship, became Governor of Dnipropetrovsk, saying: “I agreed because the homeland is in danger.”
Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, based in central Ukraine, praised his choice, saying: “The Jewish community is very proud of his decision to leave his comfort zone and devote himself to the protection of the country.”
Elsewhere, former mayor of Vinnytsia Vladimir Groisman accepted an offer to become Minister of the Regional Development.
Meanwhile, tension moved from the capital to the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, where Russia has a strategically important naval base and where 17,000 of the country’s 250,000 Jews live.
After anti-Semitic graffiti appeared on the walls of his shul on Thursday, Crimean rabbi Misha Kasputin said his Simferopol synagogue had been turned into “a fortress,” as the military stand-off continued.
“The situation here is still very dangerous,” he said. “You can see it in people’s eyes and feel it in the air. Our goal is security and we’ve hired armed professionals. I never thought I’d need to make the synagogue a fortress.”
However, Kasputin warned that recent attacks on synagogues were deliberate “provocations,” adding that the attack on his own shul was botched, with inaccuracies in the far-right symbols.
“I believe it was a well-planned provocation,” he said, adding that it took place only hours after an influx of pro-Russian forces. “I don’t know who did it but I think they wanted to involve the Jews into the tension.”
Joseph Zissels, vice-president of World Jewish Congress and chairman of Vaad Ukraine, said Putin’s claims of anti-Semitism were “exaggerated”.
Orthodox Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, president of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, said: “Russians dressing up as Ukrainian nationalists, it’s the same way the Nazis did when they wanted to go into Austria and created provocations.”
Kaminezki echoed those thoughts, saying: “What the Russian propaganda is doing is trying to show that Ukraine is anti-Semitic, which is not true. It is very safe here for the Jews. This new Ukrainian leadership is not a fascist leadership, they are patriots.”
Bleich concurred, adding: “Jews are being respected for who they are and what they are. There may be occasional acts of anti-Semitism, but nothing alarming. People are not buying what the Russians are spreading, which is allegations of anti-Semitism and fascism.
Despite the reassurances, world Jewish organisations have offered to help, with an unnamed British individual among the first to provide support to Kasputin’s Crimea synagogue.
“No-one will protect us except those who like us, but I am afraid that most of the people will just step away as already happened in our history,” said Kasputin who, for the first time this week, had to tell members not to come to shul on Shabbat because he could not guarantee their safety.
“We hope for peaceful solution and a Russian withdrawn, but I have already discussed the possibility [of an evacuation] with appropriate Jewish organisations,” he said. “I’m sure we shall not be left alone.”