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Jews and conspiracy theories: Antisemitism enters academia in Ukraine

Ukraine is home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. Like elsewhere on the continent, antisemitism has again reemerged from a past thought long gone. It will be up to the wider society to find a way to confront it.

October 16, 2020 - Ararat L. Osipian - Articles and Commentary

Brodsky synagogue in Kyiv. Photo: Fedotto (cc) wikimedia.org

A significant rise in nationalism has marked the post-Euromaidan period in Ukraine. More and more frequently, such nationalist sentiment has incorporated xenophobic and antisemitic rhetoric. According to a 2019 poll on antisemitism, which was commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) across 18 different countries, around a quarter of respondents expressed antisemitic views. In Central and Eastern Europe, which is now experiencing a rise in authoritarianism, antisemitism is now becoming more and more common. According to the ADL’s polling, nearly 70 per cent of respondents in Hungary and Ukraine, along with about half of those in Russia and Poland, agreed with the statement “Jews have too much power in the business world.” Beliefs in conspiracy theories related to Jewish people have subsequently become more commonplace in modern Ukraine.

In line with these unfortunate developments, Ukrainian police made requests for a list of Jews, including those Jewish students enrolled in local universities in an entire region in Western Ukraine. The request was made in February, but became public only in May. This formal request was made to Yakiv Zalishchyker, the head of the town of Kolomyya’s Orthodox Jewish community. Located in Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk region, Kolomyya is a settlement with a long Jewish history. During the Second World War, the city was partially destroyed and many Jews were murdered by the Nazis. In January 1942, around 400 Jews were killed in the town in just one day. That is why such a demand is especially troubling.

Yakiv Zalishchyker received the request for this list from the Ukrainian police’s Department of Strategic Investigations (DSI). The department requested a copy of a charter related to the community’s organising body, as well as a list of the community’s members. Personal information such as phone numbers and home addresses was also requested. As aforementioned, the police also specifically demanded information related to members of the Orthodox community who are enrolled in local universities. The head of the DSI in the Ivano-Frankivsk region requested that this list should also specify the name of the university, faculty or department in which these people study.

As declared in the letter, the main task of the DSI is to fight criminal groups that are transnational or specifically ethnic in nature. It remains unknown what Jewish students in Ukraine have to do with this department’s responsibilities or how they could possibly interfere with the group’s investigations. As a result, it appears that this is simply an example of police harassment against a specific ethnic group. Such actions imply that the religious community is being equated to an extremist religious organisation.

What could have possibly encouraged the region’s DSI to make this official request? Did the leaders of this group honestly believe that Jews—and students of Jewish origin in particular—could be responsible for the police’s failure to tackle organised crime? Did the police simply assume that people of Jewish origin, who have resided in Ukraine for centuries, are members of extremist organisations by default?

In late May, the boss of an international drug network centred on Montenegro was assassinated in broad daylight in downtown Kyiv. Before his death, the criminal leader was subject to an international arrest warrant. It is believed that an international team of professional hitmen from North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia was dispatched to do the job. One of the killers was already under an international arrest warrant for another assassination. The armed gang was detained in Odesa as it attempted to leave Ukraine. This crime was also investigated by the DSI. Ideally, this is what the department is meant to do on an everyday basis. Therefore, it is difficult to understand why the Orthodox Jewish community in Kolomyya is also being investigated by an organisation concerned with such events. Nevertheless, the DSI’s leader in the Ivano-Frankivsk region somehow managed to equate the two.

Constructing conspiracy theories and blaming Jews for problems in Ukraine is nothing new. Indeed, these antisemitic tendencies are also present amongst some individuals in academia. This was made clear by a recent scandal involving a department head at Lviv Polytechnic National University. This event only adds to the city’s long and difficult history with antisemitism, with the Nazis subjecting Lviv’s Jewish population to mass murder in 1941. The massacre claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Jews. Today, Lviv is the stronghold of Ukraine’s nationalist movements such as Svoboda, which counts this academic among its members.

The department head recently declared that “For decades, most ethnic Ukrainian people have chosen to follow them and their political projects”. Here, “them” explicitly refers to Jews, who have supposedly led the country to “slavery and self-destruction”. “In Ukraine, their main task is to lead Ukrainians on a leash, which they have been doing successfully for decades,” reads the post, which is supplemented by images of Ukrainian leaders near the Wailing Wall, surrounded by Orthodox Jews. Naturally, this kind of language creates a xenophobic atmosphere in academia.

Antisemitism in Western Ukraine has entered academia in two distinct ways: from the outside, led by state bureaucrats, and from the inside, led by professors. Despite this, both are fueled by antisemitic conspiracy theories. In any instance, the approach demonstrated by the police in Kolomyya is more akin to racial profiling than any kind of crime prevention. The most disturbing fact in this story is that the very people who should confront discrimination are those actively engaging in such practices. This is especially dangerous, as this sentiment is implicitly tolerated by the nation’s law enforcement agency, which is meant to fight serious problems such as hate crime. 

It may sound paradoxical, but antisemitism in Western Ukraine, presented as part of Ukrainian nationalism, may go hand in hand with Russia’s aggressive stance on Ukraine. The anti-Ukrainian propaganda uses incidences of antisemitism in order to portray Ukrainian society as lacking tolerance and capable of unprovoked aggression toward certain ethnic groups. Russia exacerbates this situation for its own end due to the ongoing war in Donbas.

The scandal in Kolomyya gained some attention from local media as well as international groups. In just a matter of days, US Senators Jacky Rosen and James Lankford made an official statement condemning the incident. Both politicians serve as co-chairs of the Senate’s Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism, launched in October 2019. The senators stated that they are “gravely concerned by reports that a high-ranking Ukrainian police official requested a list of all Jews in the city of Kolomyya as part of an inquiry into organized crime.” In their view, the police’s targeting of the town’s entire Jewish community is nothing but an ugly example of antisemitism. According to the senators, the incident “evokes darker times when European Jews were forced to register their personal information,” which seemingly refers to the forced registration of Jews by Nazi occupation authorities during the Second World War.

Despite this international reaction, many fundamental questions remain. Can Ukraine’s state authorities and universities protect its citizens regardless of their ethnic origin, religious beliefs or communal affiliation? Is Ukrainian society, including the academic community, swift enough in condemning antisemitism? How committed is Kyiv to international cooperation related to tackling antisemitism? Does Ukraine’s government truly reject the ideology of hatred, chauvinism and antisemitism?

The diverse, tolerant and inclusive character of Ukrainian society is now under question. Kyiv must now expressly underline its commitment to diversity, tolerance and inclusion. Nevertheless, as most recent incidents has shown, state authorities may choose to do just the opposite. Joel Lion, Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, recently discussed the growing problem of antisemitism in Ukraine and the generally weak reaction of the state authorities: “If postcards with Nazi symbols are sold near Maidan, you shouldn’t need to go and complain. The police must automatically go there, and deal with this, as a manifestation of antisemitism.” At the same time, the ambassador praised the reaction of the Ukrainian authorities in relation to the incident in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.

Public opinion, as well as information requests from members of Ukraine’s parliament, encouraged this swift reaction by state authorities. Certainly, the Minister of the Interior, Arsen Avakov, condemned the police request for the list of Jewish students enrolled in local universities. As a result, the police officer who authored the letter was dismissed from his office. However, this was not the case with the Lviv professor, who continues to work at the university.

Ararat Osipian is a Fellow of the Institute of International Education, and Fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, USA. His research interests include corruption and sexual harassment in education.

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