Russia’s “defender of discriminated minorities” narrative
Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Rabbi Berel Lazar
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s latest allegations regarding minority rights in Ukraine have avoided the Kremlin’s customary accusations of rampant anti-Semitism. This was probably wise, coming just a day after a full-page statement from a number of prominent Ukrainian Jewish figures was posted in major US, Canadian and Israeli newspapers. The statement accuses Vladimir Putin of spreading lies about the treatment of minorities, including Jews, in Ukraine. It points out that “the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine are not being humiliated or discriminated against, their civil rights have not been limited.” It suggests that since Putin’s claims of an increase in anti-Semitism in Ukraine are at odds with the facts, he is perhaps confusing Ukraine with Russia where such a trend has been recorded.
Rebuttal of the Russian propaganda is nothing new. Ukraine’s leading rabbis, Jewish organizations, researchers monitoring anti-Semitism and xenophobia and many others have repeatedly denied all such claims both with respect to the Maidan protests and to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. They were forced to reiterate their position in the New York Times and its international version, Israel’s Haaretz and Canada’s National Post because of the public statements made by Russia’s Chief Rabbi, Berel Lazar on March 24. Lazar criticized the Ukrainian Jewish community, including Ukraine’s Chief Rabbi Jacob Dov Bleich for calling for an end to Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine. He claimed that the Jewish community should not be meddling in issues that, in his opinion, did not directly concern the Jewish community. He also, however, said that he was concerned about anti-Semitism in Ukraine under its interim government.
The argument that this is not the Jewish community’s business is clearly untenable. Putin justified military intervention on the grounds of purported infringements of the rights of Russian nationals, Russian speakers and “anti-Semitic mobs” under the interim government.
It is extremely easy to fabricate “anti-Semitic attacks” if they suit ones narrative. Since the only anti-Semitic vandalism in Simferopol occurred after Russian military forces seized control, there are practical reasons for disputing the claims about an “anti-Semitic threat”, not to mention those of a moral nature. There are also the compelling arguments presented by disrupted lives. Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin, for example, has been forced to leave the Crimea following his strong denial of Russian claims and criticism of the intervention.
Lazar has claimed that Ukrainian Jewish leaders don’t feel free to decry anti-Semitic acts. Viacheslav Likhachev from the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress who has monitored anti-Semitism in Ukraine for the last 10 years responds that it is Lazar who is not able to speak freely and who must go along with the Kremlin line.