Ukraine Jews on guard after a violent year

Rabbi Nochum Tamarin doesn’t like to talk about what happened to him last year on a street in Ukraine. Enough has been written about the Zhitomir attack, he says, and besides, last year is long gone.

When pressed, however, Tamarin opens up a bit, and it is apparent that the incident, in which he and his wife were beaten by thugs, still affects him and his family.

“I’m not afraid,” he says, “but my wife is.”

The attack on Tamarin, a Chabad emissary, was one of a string of anti-Semitic attacks in Ukraine late last year that shook local Jewish communities.

To some, the violent episodes in Sevastopol, Odessa and Uzhgorod, where a local Chabad rabbi’s house was burned, made it seem as though anti-Semitism was aggressively on the march in the birthplace of the pogrom. Theories differ about the violence, however.

The Eurasian Jewish Congress, which runs the most respected program monitoring anti-Semitism in Ukraine, says that anti-Semitic attacks did not spike in 2007. The Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine says the statistics it has been keeping as part of a new program show an increase.

Whether or not the attacks constituted a surge in violence, it is clear they have left Jews in Ukraine — particularly its most visible members, the Orthodox — more concerned about their safety than at any other time in recent years.

“I’ve met people in Odessa, Jews that are very established and feel comfortable, and they are afraid,” said Mayer Stambler, the chairman of Chabad’s federation. “The situation over there is very serious.”

The Eurasian Jewish Congress’ report on anti-Semitism in Ukraine in 2007 details the incidents that have led to a sense of anxiety and siege among Ukraine’s Orthodox Jews. The incidents range from the distribution of anti-Semitic leaflets by MAUP, a notoriously anti-Semitic publishing house and business school, to the beating of a rabbi in Sevastopol.

But Eurasian Jewish Congress program director Vyacheslav Likhachev was careful to note that the report showed no more attacks in 2007 than in 2006 or 2005.

“There was a kind of informal [violent] campaign that was in Ukraine last August, but real statistics were not higher than

the previous two years and maybe a little bit less than the previous two years,” Likhachev said.

“We are the ones who really feel the attacks,” Stambler countered, “and the rabbis feel uncomfortable walking


One major reason for the disagreement over the numbers stems from the difficulty in collecting accurate data on hate crimes in Ukraine.

According to the 2007 country-by-country Hate Crime Report Card published by Human Rights First, Ukraine collects no data on hate crimes. Not a single person has been convicted under the country’s hate crimes statute in its post-Soviet history.

After Ukraine’s president, Victor Yuschenko, was criticized last fall for his government’s lackluster response to the attacks, he met with Jewish leaders and said he ordered the Ukrainian Security Service to establish a special department to combat hate crimes. He also proposed a bill to criminalize the denial of

the Holocaust and Ukraine’s famine of

1932-33, known as Holodomor.

But with a Ukraine beset by domestic crises that have toppled three governments in three years, Jewish observers say they are not optimistic about action.

Despite public moves like the appointment of a hate crimes ombudsman, the government seems either unwilling or unable to combat anti-Semitism and xenophobia, Jewish observers said.

“I would like to see them do more to fulfill the commitments they’ve made,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, which advocates for Jews in former Soviet republics.