Haaretz | 08Oct2009 | Anschel Pfeffer

It's time for a Jewish boycott of the Ukraine

[W.Z. The article below, as well as the title above, is an excellent example of  Jewish geopolitics, Jewish internal politics and Jewish Ukrainophobia.]

According to the Associated Press, Serhiy Ratushnyak, mayor of the Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod, is being charged with hooliganism, abuse of office and xenophobia for, among other things, calling a presidential candidate "an impudent little Jew." [W.Z. Name?]

Ratushnyak is unrepentant, telling the reporter, "Is everybody obliged to love Jews and Israel? If I don't like Jews and Israel, does that make me an anti-Semite?" Yes, well that's an interesting question. But I am not telling this story in order to ponder what defines anti-Semitism. It was actually the last bit of the AP report that especially appealed to me. Apparently, in the wake of the mayor's rant, Jewish leaders were quick to respond. First into the fray was Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, who announced that he would be visiting Uzhhorod to support the local Jewish community. Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, chief rabbi of Ukraine, also condemned Ratushnyak  but in the same breath, he also turned down his rabbinical colleague's offer of support. "Plenty of anti-Semites in Russia can use the help of Berel Lazar before he worries about anti-Semitism in Ukraine," he said.

For anyone even slightly acquainted with Jewish politics in the former Soviet Union, there is nothing surprising here. Lazar is one of two men claiming to be the chief rabbi of Russia, and for the last few years has enjoyed the Kremlin's support for his claim. Part of the unofficial deal that comes with this backing is that he has to support Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's foreign and domestic policies; in this case, that means doing everything to besmirch the image of Ukraine, Russia's former vassal, which is now eager to join NATO and the European Union. One method of doing this, which the Kremlin and its agents have repeatedly employed in the past, is to portray Ukraine as a country where anti-Semitism flourishes while its government turns a blind eye; hence Lazar's offer of support and intended visit.

Bleich's irritation is quite understandable. As he says, if Lazar is really so intent on fighting anti-Semitism, he has his job cut out for him in the country whose Jews he purports to represent. On the other hand, Bleich must also keep the government in Kiev happy. While he's been widely regarded as chief rabbi in Ukraine since 1992, two other rabbis in Kiev also claim this title. (Both of Bleich's challengers belong to the Lubavitch movement, another source of the Bleich-Lazar tension, as Lazar is also a Lubavitch rabbi who usurped a chief rabbi who had been serving in Moscow long before he arrived on the scene.)

All of these rabbinical politics could be great fun if, while trying to hold on to their jobs, they weren't dragging their communities in with them. The Jews of Russia and Ukraine face exactly the same challenges in trying to build viable communities after the great majority of Jews have left these countries. Both communities also face what is certainly the worst anti-Semitism anywhere in Europe today. But almost any joint communal policy is impossible due to the deep rivalry between Moscow and Kiev. For Putin and Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko, the local Jewish leaderships are useful political footballs in an increasingly cynical game. Lazar, Bleich and their supporters will say with a degree of justification that they have to walk a very fine line while looking out for the security of their community members, but there is still a distinct impression that all these rabbinical contenders are also looking out for their personal interests.

Whatever their motives, it is probably unrealistic to expect that Jewish leaders in countries like Russia and Ukraine would criticize their own governments. And lets be honest, many grandees of Jewish communities in nations with much longer democratic traditions are just as pusillanimous. Nor can the Israeli government or Jewish organizations that usually object to any occurrence of anti-Semitism  real or imagined, around the globe  do anything about the endemic hatred of Jews that exists in Russia. The Kremlin is a crucial player in the Iranian nuclear saga, and the Russians take every kind of criticism very personally (in the same way Turkey is let off the hook for the Armenian genocide because of its strategic importance). In other words, if we want some kind of cooperation on missiles and centrifuges, we can't kick up a fuss about skinheads vandalizing graveyards and roughing up rabbis.

If Russia is immune, due to its geopolitical power, it seems hardly fair to go after Ukraine. Yet we should. In no other country in Europe does the president honor "patriots" who were responsible for massacring thousands of Jews; the largest university in no other country has a department dedicated to churning out anti-Semitic literature; where else is there a cemetery in which an infamous blood libel is commemorated every year; which other capital city has authorized building a new hotel on the grounds of one of the Holocaust's most notorious killing fields.

[W.Z. This is pure Ukrainophobia!]

It is high time for a Jewish boycott of Ukraine. Perhaps not a total boycott, at least not at first, but at the very least some symbolic gestures. To start, in order to protest the Kiev municipality's plan to build a hotel on Babi Yar (in preparation for the Euro 2012 football championship), the Israeli Football Association should announce today that it is going to boycott the games. (The fact that the chances of Israel's football team reaching the championship are nil is immaterial.) The second step should be ending all pilgrimages to the alleged tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in Uman. The hundred thousand visitors every year to Uman bring tens of millions of dollars into the coffers of the Ukrainian government, corrupt local politicians and the mafia. The Bratslav Hassidim may be attached to their Rabbis grave, but we must explain to them that this is a matter of Jewish pride.