Putin, Ukraine and the Jews…writes Isi Leibler

March 17, 2014 by Isi Leibler
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The international crisis created by Putin’s military incursion into Crimea has also served to highlight again Russia’s relationship to the Jews.

The Russian President has included radical nationalism and anti-Semitism in the Ukraine as major justifications for his intervention.

Isi Leibler

Isi Leibler

I have personal experience of the feral anti-Semitism which pervaded the region from my direct dealings with senior Soviet authorities in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry which was the central focus of my public life for many years. I have no doubt that both in the Ukraine and Russia, a substantial proportion of the population continues to hate and fear Jews.

Yet today it is almost surreal, particularly when recalling the major contribution of Soviet Jewish dissidents towards the downfall of the Evil Empire, to observe President Putin, the authoritarian, former KGB official, displaying overt friendship towards Jews and Israel.

We are under no misapprehensions. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a democracy. But on a relative scale, the corruption and xenophobia currently dominating Ukraine is more extreme than in Russia where Putin has suppressed anti-Semites and repeatedly made friendly gestures to the Jewish community. For example, he provided $50 million of state funding for a Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow in addition to which he symbolically personally donated a month’s salary. In this he displayed total indifference to enraging the powerful anti-Semitic elements in Russian society.

Putin is a nationalist and his primary motivation is to restore Russia as a global power. This is what propelled him to intervene in Georgia and now in Ukraine to what he regards as a threatening NATO intrusion in his sphere of influence and on his borders. Russians compare this reaction to that of Kennedy’s 1962 response to Khrushchev’s effort to introduce missiles into Cuba.

Ukraine, like Russia, has a long history of violent anti-Semitism that dates back to the 1648 Khmelnitsky pogroms and continues through the Beiliss blood libel – still an issue of contention amongst many Ukrainians – and the Russian Civil War when tens of thousands of Jews were butchered.

The existing Ukrainian Jewish community, estimated to be around 200,000, has good reason to be fearful. Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has spawned thriving xenophobic right-wing parties which are alleged to have spearheaded the revolt against the corrupt President Viktor Yanukovich. Although only gaining 10% electoral support, these are genuine neo-Nazis who even employ swastika symbols and are openly anti-Semitic. Successive Ukrainian governments have ignored or condoned their extremist activities and made no effort to prosecute them.

Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of Svoboda, the largest right wing extremist nationalist faction, which holds 37 seats in the government, has called for the liberation of Ukraine from the “Muscovite-Jewish Mafia” and refers to his opponents as “Zhids”. His deputy, Yuri Mykhalchyshyn, founded a think tank initially called “The Joseph Goebbels Political Research Centre”

The party activists have circulated translations of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They revere Stepan Bandera, a onetime ally of Nazi Germany whose troops murdered tens of thousands of Jews. Their anti-Semitism is overt and has led to the desecration of synagogues and brutal acts of violence against Jews.

In an attempt to portray himself as a moderate, Dmitry Yarosh, leader of the ultra-nationalist leader “Right Sector”, currently Deputy Director of Ukraine’s Security Council and a candidate for president, has sought to dissociate himself from anti-Semitism. He even opened up a hotline with Israel’s ambassador in Kiev. But Yarosh, a renowned expert in firebombs, made it clear that he has no intention of disbanding his black garbed paramilitary units.

Not surprisingly, President Putin is exploiting these Ukrainian fascist and anti-Semitic groups in order to discredit the new government.

However a number of Ukrainian Jewish oligarchs and the Jewish umbrella body known as the Vaad, insisted that anti-Semitism posed no threat and called Putin a liar.

One of the “Chief Rabbis”, Rabbi Yaacov Bleich, a Karliner-Stoliner Hasid from New York, even accused the Russians of dressing up as Ukrainian nationalists and engaging in anti-Semitic provocations. In what may come to haunt him, Bleich also downplayed the influence of the anti-Semitic parties in the new government, saying that he received assurances that the safety of Jews will be protected.

Jews who engage in the politics of an unstable country in which successive governments condoned or ignored nationalist anti-Semitic groups, are playing with fire. Chabad Chief Rabbi Reuven Azman gave sound advice when he urged his community to leave the country, although after subsequent pressure he was obliged to tell the media that he was “unaware of any new anti-Semitic acts since the downfall of Yanukovich”.

Despite pressure from the Obama administration to condemn Russia, Israel has acted in its own interests and avoided taking any position.

Long before the confrontations with the US, Putin indicated that he respected Jews and made great efforts to display friendship to Israel. He has already paid two state visits to Jerusalem, the most recent immediately after his reelection in June 2012. He repeatedly expressed pride that former Russians make up Israel’s largest immigrant group. He visited the Kotel – the Western Wall, even donning a yarmulke which would have made his Bolshevik predecessors turn in their graves. He seemed utterly indifferent to the fact that this outraged Islamic groups in Israel and abroad.

This does not mean that Putin is a philo-Semite. He is above all, a Russian nationalist. Nor is Putin an ally. He has provided lethal weapons to those seeking our destruction and is considered an ally of both Iran and Syria.

Yet he is also far more of a realist than President Obama and must be under no illusion that Islamic fundamentalism represents a real threat to his country. He must also be concerned about the repercussions facing Russia should Iran become a nuclear power.

As a result of his disastrous foreign policy, President Obama has now paved the way for Russia to reassert itself into a possibly more dominant position in the Middle East than at the height of the Cold War. US support for the Moslem Brotherhood even alienated Egypt, which now seems to have also joined the Russian camp. Unlike Obama, whose partners no longer feel he can be relied upon, Putin has also demonstrated his ability to stand up and deliver on behalf of his allies.

Yet, despite Russia’s current support for Iran and Syria, our leaders communicate with Putin on a regular basis and seek to convince him that radical Islamic countries also pose a threat to Russia.

Thirty years ago, I would never have visualized myself supporting closer relations between Israel and Russia. We remain overwhelmingly dependent on the support of the United States and above all cherish our alliance and shared democratic values with the American people. Yet we are also obliged to develop relations with authoritarian, undemocratic countries like China. It is thus clearly in our national interest, without being under any idealistic illusions, to nurture ties with a Russia whose leader seems to have dramatically broken with centuries of Tsarist and Bolshevik anti-Semitism and now displays friendship towards the Jewish people.

Isi Leibler lives in Jerusalem. He is a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.


2 Responses to “Putin, Ukraine and the Jews…writes Isi Leibler”
  1. Gil Solomon says:


    It’s time you paid attention to what’s going on.

    Showing his true orientation, Obama pulled the rug from under Mubarak and thereby assisted the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt at the time of the so called “Arab Spring.” When the Egyptian army finally declared this fanatical group had to go, it was Obama who rushed to their defence by pleading with the Egyptian military not to take action against so called “civilians”. When the Iranian people finally had the courage to rise up against their fanatical Islamist rulers and pleaded with the US for assistance, there was total silence from this White House. Only when the “rebels” in Syria were being crushed in that country’s civil war, did Obama take his so called moral stance, bearing in mind that the the “rebels” were part and parcel of the Muslim Brotherhood. Then we have the appalling situation in Benghazi Libya where the American Ambassador and members of his staff were besieged by rampaging Islamic fanatics. Begging for help, watched in real time, Obama did not lift a finger. First he blamed the riot on an anti-Islamic video that was aired three weeks prior to the attack on the US compound and then apologised profusely for that same video while at the same time Libyan officials were categorically stating that the riot had nothing to do with the video. Help by US special forces from bases in the region was readily available but no, this President sat back and watched in real time while America’s representatives abroad were being slaughtered.

    To Israel.
    Apart from the various concessions Obama has forced out of a spineless Israeli administration, those who care about Israel should be aware of an act of profound treachery committed by the Obama administration. Fearing the affect of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s partially completed nuclear reactor prior to his re-election, the Obama administration disclosed to the world the secret Israeli air base at Azerbaijan from where the Israeli air Force would, at a time of its choosing, launch an attack to eliminate Iran’s nuclear capability. By this act, Obama sabotaged the entire operation , eliminated any element of surprise and in the process subjected Azerbaijan to a possible future attack by Iran. Needless to say, Azerbaijan’s co-operation with Israel will in future be non existent. This co-operation would have included landing rights, mid-air refueling capabilities and more.

    Otto, you say: “America is Israel’s best ally, yet it’s President is painted the worst, most deceptive opponent of Israel !!!” This comment alone suggests just how little you know.

    I hope the above proves to be a reality check for you.

  2. Otto Waldmann says:

    Half way through this piece Isi lost the plot.
    His comments regarding Obama and Putin on Israel, Iran, Syria and Egypt are at best absurd.
    Once again: Putin is NOT as bad as Obama when it comes to Israel because…..what…Putin supports both Iran and Syria while fighting….what…Islamic fundamentalism !!!!???
    Obama supports …WHO…the Muslim Brotherhood and Obama is against whom……Pres. Sisi of Egypt …!!??
    How is Obama supporting the Muslim Brotherhood !!!! I keep reading this outrageous stuff time and again from Jewish commentators …
    America is Israel’s best ally, yet it’s President is painted the worst, most deceptive opponent of Israel !!!

    Are you guys meia huz , the full quid !!???

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