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Ukraine and anti-Semitism: house of mirrors redux

More ominous headlines from Ukraine that only leave us wondering what to believe. Winning the prize for combining sensationalism with sloppy vagueness is (surprise) the New York Post, which warns: "Jews in east Ukraine forced to register with authorities." There are two serious problems with this headline. First, if you actually read the story, nobody has been "forced" to do anything—yet, at least. The demand was made in threatening leaflets, with no attempt at enforcement. Second, given the confused situation in east Ukraine, it is completely ambiguous who is indicated by the word "authorities." The "official" Urkainian government, or the Russian-backed separatists who claim to be in control? This is a rather critical point, given all the Russian propaganda about how the Kiev government is "fascist" and "anti-Semitic."

Some clarity is provided in the actual text of the story (a clueless editor could have written the headline)—and more still in the April 16 account from Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The flyers were distributed at the synagogue in Donetsk by "unidentified men in balaclava masks carrying a flag of the Russian Federation." The leaflet said all Jews who are 16 years old or above must register at the government building, which is under occupation by the pro-Russian separatists, and pay a registration fee of $50 by May 3. But Denis Pushilin, leader of the separatists, is cited as "denying any connection to the flyers, calling them a provocation."

So we are faced once again with confusion as to whether this threat is real or a charade—and, if the latter, who is attempting to tar whom. Was this really the work of pro-Russian anti-Semites? Or pro-Ukrainian provocateurs attempting to give the Russian fascist-baiters a taste of their own medicine? Or pro-Ukrainian provocateurs who also happen to be anti-Semites, and were happy to threaten Jews while letting their political enemies take the blame? Or even (anything's possible) pro-Russian provocateurs attempting to tar the pro-Ukrainian forces as provocateurs? Take your pick.

One give-away that the flyer was written by provocateurs of one stripe or another is that it apparently contained some un-bureaucratic propaganda swipes, such as: "Jews supported the nationalistic gang of Bandera in Kiev." This is not only unprofessional for a screed purporting to be a bureaucratic edict, but it also shows a rather skewed sense of history—to be as polite as possible. The line is a reference to Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist leader whose anti-Russian insurgent forces collaborated with the Nazi invaders in World War II. The notion that Jews supported him is utterly ahistorical—and ironically smacks of fascist propaganda: the Jews are behind everything bad, and if Nazism is now considered "bad," they must have been behind that too. This is a case of applying Hitler's own ideology and propaganda techniques to Hitler himself—a phenomenon we have identified as the Paradoxical Anti-Fascist Rhetoric of Contemporary Crypto-Fascism. Although in this case, it is just barely crypto.

While Bandera's Wikipedia page (which smells like it was written by a fanboy) states that there were Jews who fought for him, and that his army sheltered Jews from the Nazis, contrast this account from Tablet magazine: "On June 30, 1941, the Germans entered the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Bandera's nationalists joined Nazi Einsatzgruppen in carrying out pogroms against the city's Jews, along with political prisoners and opposition members." Although Bandera himself was in Polish exile at that moment, and may not have been personally responsible, certainly his later falling-out with the Nazis had to do with their hostility to Ukrainian nationalism—not their extermination of Ukrainian Jews. The Einsatzgruppen, recall, was the special SS unit charged with carrying out the Final Solution.

In very ominous news indeed, AP reported Jan. 1 that some 15,000 marched in Kiev in a mass rally held to honor Bandera. New Year's Day would have been Bandera's 105th birthday. A rather hagiographic account of his life on the Ukrainian nationalist websiteExLibris does note that Bandera's period of open Nazi collaboration was brief—from June 1941, which saw both the German invasion of the USSR and Bandera's proclamation of a Ukrainian "provisional government," to September 1941, when he refused German demands to dissolve the provisional government and was interned by the Gestapo in Berlin. He was released in 1944, and remained in Germany—where he was assassinated by a presumed KGB agent in 1959. A similarly uncritical assessment from the Kiev Post of April 6, 2010 pictures the statue of Bandera that has been erected in the Ukrainian capital and notes that he has been bestowed with the "official status of hero" since the fall of the Soviet Union.

So, we're the first to acknowledge that there's no reason to be sanguine about the fascist threat in Ukraine. We just find no more reason to be sanguine about the fascist threat in Russia. Were the leaflets a propaganda ploy by Kiev agents? Totally plausible. Or an egregious faux-pas by Pushilin's gang that they have now reconsidered and wish to deny? Also totally plausible. One thing's for sure: Whoever did it doesn't like Jews very much.

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