The New York Times ran this dispatch from the Ukrainian city of Donetsk: Worshippers at the Bet Menakhem-Mendl synagogue ... confronted a horrifying scene as they left a Passover service this week: masked men on a sidewalk handing out leaflets demanding that Jews register and pay a fine or leave the area, witnesses said.
Pinchas Vishedski, chief rabbi of Donetsks 15,000 Jews, later told Reuters that the leaflets were fake, a crude provocation aimed at stirring resentment against the pro-Russian militants who have taken over the city. The source of the notices remains obscure. But thats not the point. The horrifying scene sent a sharp stab of pain and memory through Jews who trace their roots to Eastern Europe. Steve is one of them.
Anti-Semitism is an endemic element of life in that part of the world. Harassing Jews is as much a part of Russian culture as drinking vodka.
Thats why so many Jewish families like Steves fled the Russian Empire during the early part of the 20th century and emigrated westward.
Still, on the eve of World War II, Ukraine had 2.7 million Jews: a vibrant community that produced such luminaries as Golda Meir, later the prime minister of Israel, and Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish writer who created Tevye the milkman, the central character in the popular musical Fiddler on the Roof.
The Holocaust decimated Ukraines Jewish population, and most of the survivors moved to Israel. Today there are only about 70,000 Jews left in the country, but even in such diminished numbers, they are easy objects of political scorn and scapegoating.
After the leaflet incident, Rabbi Vishedski pleaded, Im asking those behind this not to make us tools in this game.
But both sides in the Ukrainian power struggle — pro-nationalists and pro-Russians — have shown a willingness to use Jews as tools when it suits their purpose.
Anti-Semitism remains a feature of militant nationalism in both Ukraine and Russia, Reuters reported from Donetsk. During unrest that saw the overthrow of Kievs Kremlin-backed president in February, several attacks on Jews and synagogues were blamed on Ukrainian far-right groups.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation league, explained the historic origins of this impulse in USA Today: Both classical political anti-Semitism and the manufactured manipulative version rely on a common assumption, that a significant number of Ukrainian citizens do not consider their Jewish compatriots to be truly part of the Ukrainian nation.
(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.)