There’s an old joke about a Jewish community somewhere in the Midwest that received a telegram from the UJA office in New York City:
EMERGENCY. SEND MONEY.
DETAILS TO FOLLOW.
That was what it felt like during April, when we received numerous alarming reports from Ukraine. Not all the reports were credible, and they contradicted one another. But there was no “Send money” message from the Jewish Federations of North America, at least in part because it wasn’t clear that money would make any difference.
The most disturbing report was that the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” had distributed a flyer ordering Jews to register, at penalty of deportation. The “People’s Republic of Donetsk” was apparently a pro-Russian group that had taken over the municipal government in Donetsk (the name suggests that it might be not just pro-Russian but also pro-Soviet).
The leaders of that group repudiated the order. They said that, while it might have been distributed by their followers, it was unauthorized and had no force. Later reports suggested that it might have originated with a pro-Ukrainian group hoping to embarrass the pro-Russian faction, or (now it gets complicated) with the pro-Russian faction, hoping to pin blame on the pro-Ukrainians.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine has been a great friend of Jews, although both had large Jewish populations and still have significant numbers of Jews.
Regardless of who issued the flyer, the tactic is ominous.
On one hand, it reeks of Stalinist portrayals of Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” with no loyalty to the country in which they had lived for many generations.
On the other hand, it also evokes memories of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine. This is not to say that the Nazi persecution of Jews carries weight in Ukraine today—only that one side may have wanted to paint the other as pro-Nazi and therefore anti-Ukraine. It’s just not clear which side was behind it.
Another disturbing aspect of the situation in Ukraine is Russia’s claim that it has a right to protect ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. It sounds too much like Germany’s claim on the Sudetenland (the western part of Czechoslovakia) in 1938.
Ethnic conflicts in that part of the world are inherently difficult for Americans to understand. Although we now realize that the United States is not quite the “melting pot” we once thought, we all believe that ethnic background and national identity are separate.
Throughout central and eastern Europe, national identity is somewhat confused because of arbitrary borders drawn after World Wars I and II. It is more confused in the former Soviet Union because of Stalin’s policy of shifting large populations from one part of the Soviet Union to another. Large numbers of people from Russia were resettled in both Ukraine and the Baltic states, possibly as bulwarks against any drives for independence.
None of this makes us feel any more comfortable with the Donetsk flyer. It seems that Jews in Donetsk did not take it at all seriously, and none registered. Nevertheless, the idea that it could seem like a good political tactic and that it might have been taken seriously remains unsettling.