The Enigmatic Role of Anti-Semitism in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Vladimir Putin and Berl Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Russia in 2012. Image: Wikipedia (CC BY 4.0)

As noted recently in the New York Times and elsewhere, the Jews of Ukraine have plenty of reason for concern. History has not been kind to the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe: from pogroms to the Holocaust, the memory of historical trauma is very much alive. But as Russia commences a war in Ukraine, history isn’t the only reason for Ukraine’s Jewish community to be afraid

A not-so-latent anti-semitism lies at the heart of Putin’s propaganda machine, and appeals to anti-semitic sentiments have been a central theme in the kultur politik advanced by both Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church in the Putin era. For example, whatever sympathy Russia does get from the West relies in no small part on shared anti-semitism and a perception that Russia (and frequently Russian Orthodoxy) are essentially anti-Jewish. This strategy has been on full display with respect to Ukraine. To be clear, there is a certain irony to this, since Putin’s government and Kirill’s patriarchate  have arguably been some of the least openly anti-semitic in Russian history (notably a very low bar), a fact underscored by the support Putin enjoys among Russian Jews. 

That being said, there is one particular Jewish person that Putin and his regime clearly hate: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And there’s apparently no concern about allowing anti-semitic tropes to govern their treatment of him. For example,  in October of last year, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council (and former president) Dmitry Medvedev published a shocking, expletive-filled attack on Ukraine and its president

In addition to repeating the Putin regime’s persistent claim that Ukraine has no distinct cultural identity and that Moscow is the sole and rightful heir of the Kievan Rus, Medvedev referred to Zelenskyy as “a man with certain ethnic roots” and suggested that Zelenskyy has concealed his Jewish identity to serve the interests of Ukrainian nationalists. Medvedev went even further and suggested that Zelenskyy’s “betrayal” of Russia made him akin to a Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners in Nazi death camps forced to help dispose of those killed in the gas chambers. 

But the threat isn’t just directed at Zelenskyy. This week US officials sent a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights revealing that, according to credible US intelligence, Russian forces in the disputed regions intended to target Russian and Belorussian dissidents living in Ukraine, including religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, and LGBT activists. And state-controlled Russian media continue to push theories alleging that the Ukrainian government meddled in the 2016 US election at the direction of George Soros (a theory that may very well be shared by Rudy Giuliani), who often figures prominently in anti-semitic conspiracy theories, both in the US and abroad.

What’s truly fascinating about the entire thing is that the Kremlin has gone out of its way to make its recent not-so-terrible track record with Jews a central part of its propaganda against Ukraine, a nation which, it has routinely asserted, is not some bastion of pro-Western sentiment, but rather a regressive violator of human rights. Ukraine, according to Russian propaganda, is the structurally anti-semitic country while Russia is just trying to help out the Jews of Ukraine.

Which brings us to the most realistic and imminent threat for Ukraine’s Jewish community. There is a real danger that Russia will covertly perpetuate anti-semitic violence, blame that violence on Ukrainian nationalists, and then use it as pretext to commit further violence in the country. After all, even as late as last night, Putin was suggesting that his objective in the Ukraine is to “de-Nazify” the country.

Eastern Europe’s Jewish community is quite used to being used as pawns in the games of history. And as the next chapter in that complicated and often dark history commences, there is little reason to believe this time will be any different.