Back in May 2011, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which I serve as president, co-sponsored an international conference in Kiev together with the Ukrainian Jewish Committee to fight against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Ukraine and around the world. During the conference, I met many wonderful Jewish and Muslim Ukrainians — mainly from the Crimean Tatar community — all of whom told me that despite long and bitter histories of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim violence in that country, they were committed to remaining in Ukraine and forging interfaith coalitions together with leaders of the majority Christian churches dedicated to building a pluralistic and democratic Ukraine.
The horrifying explosion of violence in Kiev and around Ukraine this week, that has apparently left as many as 100 people dead and many more wounded, has obviously put that noble dream at grave risk. There is growing concern that the very territorial integrity of the country could be endangered — with the country potentially fracturing into a pro-European western Ukraine and a pro-Russian eastern Ukraine — unless both the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition coalition manage to pull back from the brink. Amidst the specter of chaotic civil war, there is also ample reason for concern for the wellbeing of Ukraine’s approximately 300,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims, the majority of whom are Crimean Tatars.
As I write, there is seemingly hopeful news that President Yanukovych, whose support has hemorrhaged even within his own party in the wake of the government-instigated bloodbath on February 19-20, has agreed to a tentative deal with the opposition involving a devolution of some presidential powers to Parliament and the holding of early elections. Yet the President has made similar conciliatory noises on several occasions since the political crisis began last November, only to return abruptly to efforts to crush the opposition through violent repression.
At this point, the President must immediately order security forces to cease firing live ammunition at protestors and both the government and opposition coalition must foreswear the use of violence and commence serious negotiations for a peaceful solution to the conflict. Whatever the shape of the eventual resolution of the political crisis, the supreme moral imperative of the moment is the preservation of human life.
Ukrainians must also be vigilant to prevent any recurrence of an age-old propensity to scapegoat the Jews as the source of their misfortunes. Concern on this score cannot be lightly dismissed given that last month there were attacks on two yeshiva students who were beaten by anti-Semitic thugs while leaving synagogues in Kiev. Ukrainian Jewish leaders have told us that while anti-Semitism has so far not played a pronounced role in the conflict between the Ukrainian government and the opposition coalition, they are deeply concerned about the potential for attacks on Jews if law and order break down and Ukraine descends deeper into chaos.
Although Jews have participated prominently in the pro-democracy and pro-European demonstrations on Maidan Square, one cannot help but look with disquiet on the fact that one of the three main opposition parties, Svoboda (Liberty), has a history of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Given the tragic history of massive anti-Jewish violence in Ukraine, going back to the Khemelnytsky pogroms during the 17th century, in which more than 100,000 Jews were murdered, both the government and opposition coalition have a special responsibility to be vigilant in preventing the outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in the coming hours and days.
We are also concerned about the worrying prospect of a possible outbreak of violence against the Crimean Tatars, a Muslim community that was exiled to Siberia by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin during World War II, and which returned to their homeland of Crimea, an autonomous republic within Ukraine, during the 1990’s. There are about 300,000 Tatars in Crimea today; about 12.5% of the total population.
In Crimea, the Jewish and Crimean Tatar communities have worked closely with FFEU in recent years to stand together against Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. There have been a rash of such incidents in recent years, including desecrations of mosques and synagogues, largely perpetrated by ethnic Russian extremists. According to Crimean Tatar leaders, in recent days prominent ethnic Russian politicians in Crimea have openly advocated that Crimea consider seceding from Ukraine and ask to be annexed by Russia. When Crimean Tatar leader Refat Churbatov took to the floor of the Crimean Parliament earlier this week to call for a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Kiev and maintenance of the unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine, he was met with a deafening cascade of boos and stamping of feet by members of Parliament.
The Crimean Tatars, who suffered greatly after the Khanate of Crimea was absorbed by the Russian Empire and under the subsequent Soviet regime, are fearful of renewed persecution if Crimea reverts to Russia. I call upon the leaders of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to respect the human and civil rights of both the Jews and Muslims of Crimea and do everything to lessen the possibility of violence against the Crimean Tatar minority, who have charted a course of political moderation and want only to live peacefully in their ancestral land.