Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews: Anti­semitism, Pro­pa­gan­da, and the Dis­place­ment of Ukrain­ian Jewry

Sam Sokol

  • Review
By – April 26, 2020

Sam Sokol, a major Israeli jour­nal­ist, has writ­ten an indis­pens­able book on the response of Ukraine’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to Russia’s inva­sion of east­ern Ukraine. Sokol tells his sto­ry through pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources, often cit­ing inter­views and tes­ti­mo­ny of indi­vid­u­als involved on all sides of the issue. One of his main argu­ments is that Vladimir Putin used anti­semitism in Ukraine to jus­ti­fy his attack against a ter­ri­to­ry that was once part of the Sovi­et Union.

Against the back­ground of the Ukrain­ian Rev­o­lu­tion of 1914 — also known as the Euro­maid­an rev­o­lu­tion, which top­pled the pro-Russ­ian Yanukovych gov­ern­ment — Sokol argues that Putin viewed his action as a nec­es­sary con­tin­u­a­tion of the Sovi­et Union’s war against the Nazis dur­ing World War II. The pres­ence of of anti­se­mit­ic, fas­cist, and neo-Nazi polit­i­cal par­ties in Ukraine allowed Putin to legit­imize the Russ­ian inva­sion as pro­tect­ing Jews, Roma, and oth­er nation­al minori­ties from a rev­o­lu­tion­ary regime that ide­o­log­i­cal­ly spoke the lan­guage that the Sovi­et Union fought against in its war against Hitler. By using this argu­ment, Putin hoped to gain inter­na­tion­al sup­port for his inter­ven­tion in Ukraine. Towards this end, Putin unleashed the Russ­ian media in a tor­rent of false news which described Ukrain­ian Jews as being harassed and threat­ened by a hos­tile gov­ern­ment. Iron­i­cal­ly, Jew­ish life in Ukraine was not in any way in dan­ger but, as Sokol informs us, the sub­se­quent dis­place­ment of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was caused by the takeover of Ukraine’s indus­tri­al Don­bas region by the Russ­ian backed sep­a­ratists who were osten­si­bly there for their protection.

Sokol notes that in response to Russia’s aggres­sion, the Ukrain­ian gov­ern­ment sought to uni­fy the Ukrain­ian pop­u­la­tion by invok­ing nation­al­is­tic tropes which includ­ed pro­mot­ing a Ukrain­ian his­to­ri­og­ra­phy that cel­e­brat­ed those who fought the Sovi­et Union dur­ing World War II. In the process vir­u­lent racists, anti­semites and Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tors, such as Stepan Ban­dera and Roman Shukhevych, were reha­bil­i­tat­ed and res­ur­rect­ed as hero­ic patri­ots. In the course of the ongo­ing con­flict between Ukraine and Russ­ian-backed sep­a­ratists, anti­se­mit­ic and far-right mili­tias joined the con­flict against Rus­sia and were offi­cial­ly wel­comed by the gov­ern­ment. Sub­se­quent­ly the mili­tias, who were pro-Nazi dur­ing World War II, went beyond fight­ing Rus­sians and vio­lent­ly turned against the country’s Jew­ish and Roma communities

The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Ukraine strong­ly sup­port­ed the war against Rus­sia. Jews fought in the army and served in gov­ern­ment posi­tions; Volodymyr Zelen­sky, the present Pres­i­dent of the Ukraine is not an anom­aly. Sokol also writes of the influ­ence of the Chabad in Ukrain­ian Jew­ish life, who loy­al­ly sup­port­ed the pro-West­ern gov­ern­ment and most inter­est­ing­ly opposed their coun­ter­parts in Rus­sia, which also includ­ed Russia’s chief rab­bi, a close advi­sor to Putin, who sup­port­ed the inva­sion of Ukraine.

Despite its strong sup­port for the Ukrain­ian government’s con­flict with Rus­sia, the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty suf­fered vio­lence and an increase in anti­semitism from the new­ly legit­i­mat­ed far-right. For Ukrain­ian Jews their every­day life began to dete­ri­o­rate to the point that the Israeli gov­ern­ment encour­aged that the country’s Jews make aliyah to the Jew­ish state. In1917, Israel’s Min­is­ter of Dias­po­ra Affairs stat­ed that Ukraine had the largest num­ber of report­ed anti-Semit­ic inci­dents of all the coun­tries in the for­mer Sovi­et Union.”

Sokol has per­formed a mas­ter­ful feat in bring­ing togeth­er the strands that make the ongo­ing Russ­ian-Ukrain­ian under­stand­able, and shed­ding light on the polit­i­cal back­ground of the present.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

Discussion Questions