Between the hammer and the anvil
A review of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews: Antisemitism, Propaganda, and the Displacement of Ukrainian Jewry. By: Sam Sokol. Publisher: ISGAP, New York. 2019
Revolutions, social upheavals and wars have always meant trouble for the Jews of Eastern Europe. A quick look at history and we learn how the slaughter of Jews always accompanied crucial turning points in the region’s often brutal story. Be it the Khmelnytsky Cossack uprising against Polish magnates in the 17th century, the widespread pogroms in the Russian Empire at the turn of the 20th century, or the Holocaust itself. The region also has a foul record of state inspired antisemitism. The Russian secret police of the tsarist era was so successful with their dissemination of the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, copies can still be found today at book markets from Tokyo to Dakar.
The Ukrainian Jewish community remains, in spite of the Holocaust, communist repressions and emigration, one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s Jews found themselves in a new reality. Organised communal life and physical structures had to be built up from the very foundations, and contact with the Jewish world could be fully re-established. It was the three decades-long effort of the reborn network of communities that would be put to the test as Ukraine was thrown into turmoil in 2014.
Our Jews good, their Jews bad
The Revolution of Dignity that took over the Maidan square in Kyiv and ousted President Viktor Yanukovych quickly showcased a division not only between Ukrainian and Russian Jews, but among Ukrainian Jews themselves. This was, after all, an entirely new situation and it was filled with uncertainty. The spike in antisemitic incidents around the country exacerbated this feeling even further. These attacks seemed to play into the Kremlin’s narrative of a fascist antisemitic coup in Kyiv. At the same time, Ukrainian right-wing nationalists were visible on both the Maidan and later at the front, after the war broke out in the eastern part of the country with Russian-backed separatists.
Reading Jewish-oriented news on Ukraine from the outside during this time often ended in confusion and shock. There was one story which became especially hard to forget. An ultimatum, which claimed to have been signed by the newly declared pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and delivered to the Jewish community, called for Jews to report for registration reminiscent of harrowing moments of the Holocaust. It had become clear this was no coincidence, and Jews had involuntarily become caught between the hammer and anvil.
Sam Sokol, in his book Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews, goes beyond these news stories and sets out on two simultaneous quests. The first is to organise the experiences of a beleaguered community by creating a timeline and gathering first-hand accounts from across the country. The second is to examine how antisemitism functioned as an element in Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine. The author, a Jerusalem-based journalist, went to great lengths to fulfil both quests, travelling through checkpoints and war zones, tirelessly noting down testimonies. As a result, Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews is the most complete account on how Ukrainian Jews fared in post-Maidan Ukraine to date. The book also contains fascinating descriptions of the dilemmas and choices of the various Jewish leaders. We are introduced to Yosyf Zisels, a former Soviet dissident, who would embrace the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity and speak to crowds on the Maidan, and the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, who seems to jump whenever Putin claps. The information war both leaders and others took part in was just as much intended for the outside as it was for the locals. Israel’s large community with roots in the former Soviet Union would soon take heed of what was going on in the old country.
Hybrid war, real victims
While Sokol carefully examines the unfolding events and activities of various agencies and institutions, he never loses focus on the human cost. His book concentrates on the experiences of Jewish Ukrainians showing how they faced the same hardships as their non-Jewish compatriots. The stories of indiscriminate rocket fire targeting housing estates and elderly people who were hiding in basements for days with no food or utilities brings to light the tragedy of the last few years of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The stories of those internally displaced paint a grim picture of what it is like to be a refugee in one’s own country while thousands of others prepare for the unknown journey to Israel.
Yet with all this anguish, there seems to be hope. Be it the displaced children chasing each other around Dnipro’s menorah shaped Jewish community centre, or the Jewish wedding of two octogenarian refugees from Luhansk. The economic hardship that continues to plague Ukraine has been challenging (especially for the displaced), and this book seems to emphasise that more should be done by both the Jewish world and Israel itself. This comes to attention as Sokol relays a surrealistic scene at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, where hundreds of Ukrainian Jews have just landed, escaping war and misery, while thousands of religious Jews are in the departure hall en route to Ukraine, ready for a spiritual journey and some leisure time.
The only criticism is that the book abruptly ends. This is hardly the author’s fault as he is writing about very recent events and things change fairly quickly. Therefore, it would be interesting if, in a few years’ time, Sokol decides to pick up where he left off. Some scholars like Taras Kuzio believe that Ukraine’s post-Soviet era has come to an end with the election of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Perhaps it is too early to tell what the popular “Mr Ze” can achieve in Ukraine, but surely his relationship with Ukraine’s Jewish community will be scrutinised from all sides. One can only hope that Sokol is the one making notes.
Daniel Gleichgewicht is an editor with New Eastern Europe.