I draw a distinction between someone who is anti-Semitic, and someone who says anti-Semitic things. The two are not mutually exclusive. Not everyone who says anti-Semitic things is necessarily anti-Semitic, but is definitely ignorant. Not every anti-Semite necessarily says anti-Semitic things, but is no less ignorant.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has demonstrated that he seems to be both. In comments to an Italian news agency, Lavrov spoke about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, doubling down and adding fuel to the fire of allegations that the reason for the invasion is to eliminate Nazis from Ukraine.
Lavrov started off by calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a Nazi. It’s important to note that Zelenskyy himself is Jewish. Then, Lavrov went over the top. He “proved” his statement by noting (incorrectly) that even Hitler had “Jewish blood,” as if to justify Russia’s invasion and his penultimate slander: “For a long time now we’ve been hearing the wise Jewish people say that the biggest anti-Semites are the Jews themselves.”
By Lavrov’s anti-Semitic logic, if Hitler had Jewish blood and defined Nazism, then surely Zelenskyy, who is a Jew, is also a Nazi.
Ah, yes. The cabal of “wise Jewish people” who say that the biggest anti-Semites are Jewish. It reminds me of a “rule” in my fraternity where one could say anything about anyone as long as it was prefaced by, “I heard that...” Except that Lavrov is not a stupid college student, and he happened to violate some of the most egregious forms of anti-Semitic libels. Too bad he didn’t think to add that Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians are using Russian children’s blood to make their borscht.
Deliberately or not, Lavrov unmasked a huge history of anti-Semitism that’s a long part of Russian history, including in Ukraine. Not that anyone who knows their history doesn’t know that under the czars and later the Soviet regime, this was part of the world was the most hostile and dangerous place for Jews to live, and the easiest to be persecuted and slaughtered. It seems the slogan attributed to the movement to free Jews from the Soviet Union remains true: “Russia is not healthy for Jews and other living things.”
The czars and Soviet leaders from Stalin through Andropov must be laughing in their graves, beaming with pride to see their anti-Semitic tradition being carried on to the next generation.
Under the czars, Jews were largely confined to what’s known as “the Pale of Settlement,” parts of southern Russia, Ukraine and other future/former Soviet provinces. It was like a ghetto, for an entire region. It didn’t limit anti-Semitism in the rest of the Russian empire, but just made it easier for pogroms and other forms of persecution having Jews concentrated together. Whenever possible, Jews would flee. But it's not like they could just get on a train or boat to safety. That’s why so many were murdered, even before the actual Nazis arrived.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews (or more) were murdered in Russia and Ukraine under the Nazis, often with the help of their Russian, and especially Ukrainian, neighbors who willingly participated as eager collaborators. Jews still couldn’t leave, though after the war were able to migrate to Soviet cities outside the pale.
While “officially” the USSR was anti-Semitic, that was just a ruse. Jews were identified as such in their Soviet ID card which made discrimination and quotas easy to enforce, even if “officially” such discrimination was anti-Soviet. Jews were prevented from practicing their faith, studying or publishing in Hebrew, and victims of some of the most outrageous civil crimes just for being Jews. Soviet Jews could not leave, and those who had the audacity to apply to the Soviet regime for permission to do so, were subject to additional persecution, legal threats, and imprisonment.
Stalin’s persecution of Jews was infamous as he launched the notorious anti-Semitic purge through the “Doctors Plot,” along with deporting Jews to Siberia. Jews grew up under Stalin knowing that they were not only physically unsafe, but that any neighbor could turn them on any number of trumped-up allegations, for any reason, including that anti-Semitism was just acceptable.
Zelenskyy is not a Nazi, and he’s also not an anti-Semite. However, being fair, his hands are not clean, as he has stoked rudimentary anti-Semitism himself. Applying a gross double standard, he has appealed to Israel and Jews through guilt, that we have a special obligation to defend Ukraine. He’s used the absurd notion and lie that Ukrainians (always) defended Jews. Being fully honest, minus a handful of Righteous Gentiles, nobody can ever say that about Ukraine and Ukrainians with a straight face. But Zelenskyy did.
He also singles out Israel in his appeal, albeit Ukraine doesn’t have such a great voting record in the UN or other international forums in support of Israel. Double standard? Zelenskyy gets away with it because he’s Jewish and seen as the underdog, defending his country under a horrific attack. Ukraine deserves support despite, but not because of, their history vis-à-vis Israel and the Jews. His passive stoking of anti-Semitism is also part of the problem.
Yes, Jewish communities survived and established deep roots there, though there is no real positive history of or for the Jewish people in Ukraine. In fact, Ukraine is the geographic and national intersection where generations of conflict have arisen, whether about Jews or not – as in most cases – and when conflict comes, Jews get stuck in the middle, then blamed and inevitably persecuted.
I’ve taken exception to the proclivity of some nonprofit efforts to raise money just for the 200,000 jews of Ukraine, less than 5% percent of the coutry's population. The horrors and suffering for all 44 million Ukrainians are unspeakable.
Until now, Jews have not been singled out per se, making them no better and no worse than all Ukrainians and, in my estimation, no more or less in need of unique support.
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six. Throughout his life and career, he has become a respected bridge between Jews and Christians and serves as president of the Genesis 123 Foundation. He writes regularly on major Christian websites about Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. He is host of the popular Inspiration from Zion podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.