Flagrant Foul

A cruel hoax with serious repercussions represents a political football.

How’s that for stringing three cliched phrases together and saying nothing? Strangely, however, in context they are wholly apt in describing the aftermath of recent reports that anti-Semitic fliers were distributed by “pro-Russian” forces telling Jews in eastern Ukraine to register with local authorities.

The fliers were given to Jews leaving a Passover service at a synagogue in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, where 15,000 Jews reside and where tensions are explosively high between Ukraine and Russia. Needless to say, Jews the world over were shocked by the initial press reports that brought remembrances of horrific things past.

It appears conclusive that the fliers were forgeries, described by the Donetsk chief rabbi as a “crude provocation” and by the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman as a “political dirty trick.”

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Foxman called the incident “the latest escalation in a series of political maneuvers in Ukraine, where the anti-Semitism card has been repeatedly overplayed.” He added that “manufactured incidents of anti-Semitism have been cynically used to discredit political opponents as anti-Semites, whether they are or not.”

During the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has already seized Crimea from Ukraine by the application of naked military force, both Russian and Ukrainian officials have traded charges that the other side is made up of “extremists and anti-Semites.” Putin, to his credit, has not shown signs of being an anti-Semite, and his policies towards Russia’s still-large Jewish population have been protective and benign.

Within both Russia and Ukraine, there are indeed anti-Semitic and ultranationalist elements.

But by no means are a majority of Ukrainians who protested the policies of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych “extremists and anti-Semites.” Similarly, the majority of Russian citizens who have supported Putin’s ill-advised and aggressive actions in Ukraine might be misguided, but that does not make them anti-Semites.

Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was interviewed Sunday by David Gregory on “Meet the Press” and was asked about the then-unconfirmed reports of the anti-Semitic fliers. Yatsenyuk replied that he had made a “clear statement (which) urged the Ukrainian military and security forces and the Ukrainian Department of Homeland Security urgently to find these bastards and bring them to justice.”

Meanwhile, the reaction of Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, was equally swift and crystal clear. Rice said reports of the anti-Semitic fliers were “utterly sickening” and that such leaflets have no place in the 21st century. She said Secretary of State John Kerry has forcefully conveyed that view to his Russian counterpart, and no doubt a similar sentiment will be voiced by Vice President Joe Biden in his visit early this week to Ukraine.

With all the outpouring of support by leaders in both Ukraine and Russia toward their Jewish populations, why be concerned about recent incidents such as the leaflet drop? There are a couple of very important reasons.

First, trying to use anti-Semitism as a sword – by labeling one’s political opponent as an anti-Semite, without evidence and purely to get a leg up politically – is disgusting. It is an attempt to make oneself look morally superior and, more importantly, casts a wide and vicious shadow on one’s political enemy. It is the essence of fighting dirty and without respect for others.

For Jews, however, the stakes are even higher. If Jews can be batted to and fro in this way by those who are purportedly not anti-Semitic, what’s to keep true haters from rising to the surface with their venom? If ethnic hatred is nothing more than a political tactic, then sociopaths and despots can have a free-for-all in pointing blame at Jews for the ills that befall a society or nation. Once the ball’s in play, it’s awfully hard to set it back on the sidelines.

As shown by the horrific shootings last week in suburban Kansas City – in which three people were killed at Jewish facilities and for which a known white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan leader has been charged – authentic anti-Semitism is tragically all too real and lethal when extremists act on their hatred. 

Rumors such as those involving the anti-Semitic fliers last week are equivalent to pouring gasoline on a fire.

At peace talks in Geneva last week, one of the few major agreements that offered some real hope was a joint statement by the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union denouncing anti-Semitism firmly and unequivocally. That would include using false charges of anti-Semitism as a “political card.” 

Let us hope that this incident can be seen as a “teachable moment” regarding the real dangers of using anti-Semitic allegations as a blunt and convenient political instrument.