The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is celebrated (like all Jewish holidays), according to the lunar calendar. It means that each year they fall on a different date according to the Gregorian calendar. So, in 2021, Jews began to celebrate the religious holiday Hanukkah on December 28. Unfortunately, the radical right seize on celebrations to inveigh they own forms of hatred against the Jewish community. On November 29, 2021, for example, four vandals in the city of Dnieper, Ukraine, brought down the Chanukiah, a sacred Jewish lamp, which is customarily placed on the central squares of cities around the world during this Holiday. According to the Dnieper Jewish community, they were all born between 2001 and 2003 and are supporters of neo-Nazi ideology.
A day earlier, a similar attempt had been made to arrange antisemitic attacks on Kiev’s main street, Khreshchatyk, near Maidan, the very place where the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity began in 2014. The vandal, Yuri Tebenko, acted with the explicit approval of the citizens of Kyiv who were passing by. It is noted that there was applause and shouts of approval from passersby. His actions were stopped by the municipal police, but he was not detained. Moreover, the police, having prevented the antisemitic actions, actually retreated, allowing the perpetrator and passers-by to insult policemen throughout the action. The perpetrator was apprehended the next day, and only after protests from the local Jewish community. The action was of an organized nature, since the vandal was accompanied by Andrey Rachok, a well-known Ukrainian ultra-nationalist and antisemite, who had committed the same crime exactly one year ago, disassembling the holiday Chanukiah on Kontraktova Square in Kiev, with the words “Ukrainians are strength, for kikes [a derogatory term used against Jews] is the grave”.
Moreover, the day before, a video clip circulated on social networks in which a certain person under the pseudonym “Reliable Journalist” claimed that Hanukkah was not a holiday in honor of the cleansing of the Temple, but a celebration of the Jews’ victory over the Slavic Aryans, or “Slavo-Aryans”, and that the Chanukiah located in the center of the Ukrainian capital is a “mockery of Ukrainians”.
On November 30, 2021, another Chanukiah was knocked down in another district of Kiev – in Troyeshchyna. The incident occurred in broad daylight, presumably between 9 and 3 p.m. At the time of writing, the perpetrators had not been found.
On December 4, the Chanukiah in Uzhgorod was thrown into the river. On the same day, vandals damaged the Chanukiah in Rivne. According to eyewitnesses, a note was left on the Chanukiah with the approximate content “Jews abuse our tolerance”. A total of six such incidents were recorded on Hanukkah this year in Ukraine.
What have the authorities done? Legal & Enforcement Loopholes
Observers note the demonstratively lenient attitude of the authorities toward antisemitic vandals. First of all, criminal cases are filed under a relatively mild article of the Criminal Code in Ukraine relating to hooliganism – Part 2, Article 296 (hooligan actions committed by a group of persons), rather than under Article 161 – “violation of equality of citizens on the basis of their race, ethnicity or religious beliefs”.
Secondly, law enforcement agencies are surprisingly lenient toward criminals; for example, the already mentioned Kreshchatik street vandal, Yury Tebenko, was detained only after protests by the Jewish community. It is interesting that a year ago the already mentioned Andrey Rachok was also prosecuted for hooliganism, but he was not only convicted by the court, but was not even detained. Moreover, he forced Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) officers, who wanted to hand him a document on suspicion of committing a crime, out of his apartment. Members of this serious organization, which instills fear into all sorts of separatists, found themselves defenseless in the face of a boorish antisemite, for whom no legal consequences were forthcoming in any of the episodes.
Third, it is clear that the Ukrainian police are in no hurry to initiate criminal proceedings. For example, with regard to the anti-Jewish vandalism on Troyeshchina, the United Jewish Community of Ukraine was forced to note the inaction of the law enforcement authorities. The Community said that they would be forced to appeal to an investigating judge in order to force the police to open criminal proceedings.
Fourth, none of the authors of the antisemitic videos, which were spread on social networks shortly before the three acts of vandalism were committed, were brought to justice. For example, the same Audrey Rachok published an antisemitic video clip on November 26, two days before he took part in the act on Khreshchatyk, in which he accused Jews and special services of Israel, which he called ZAHAL (or an “Israel Defense Army”) for non-clear reason, and that they were conspiring with the Ukrainian SBU to extradite him. Once again, there were no legal consequences for him.
Drivers of Antisemitic Hate: Xenophobia & Integral Nationalism in the Ukrainian Case
Why is this happening? Why is it that in a country that seemed to have made a leap toward freedom in 2014, demonstrative acts of antisemitic vandalism, accompanied by the spread of hatred on the Internet, with the support of a large part of the population and the ostensible impotence of law enforcement agencies, including the SBU, have become possible?
One key reason is that xenophobia is always a consequence of myth-making, anchored in tradition and, in some cases, politics. Apparently, in Ukraine, politics came first. If we go back to relatively recent history and analyze the slogans under which the Ukrainian revolutionaries went to the Maidan (the Central square in Kyiv) in early 2014, we see quite contradictory things. On the one hand, these were the slogans of European integration, Freedom and Democracy. But on the other hand, there were also Nationalist slogans. Moreover, the more nationalist and neo-Nazi organizations participated in the protests, the more often they led it. The nationalists participated in the most risky actions within the confines of Maidan, they went ahead and demonstrated particular determination and refusal of any compromise with the authorities. According to eyewitnesses, at some point nationalists have also ceased to be marginal; they became acceptable and, to some extent, even “mainstreamable” for many active citizens. That is, at a certain stage of the protest, they began to be perceived as its driving force, and their ideology became the prevailing ideology of the Protest. Already in January 2014, portraits of Stepan Bandera, the leader of the OUN-UPA, who was responsible for the Jewish and Polish pogroms in Ukraine during World War II, appeared in large numbers at the Maidan protest.
To give some background, the ideology of the OUN-UPA was formed in the 1930s on the basis of “Active nationalism”, the concept of which was formed in the mid 1920s of the last century by the Ukrainian philosopher-nationalist Dmitry Dontsov. This concept was based on the theory of the notorious Integral nationalism, transferred to Ukrainian soil. Its content fits into several main theses: the priority of the interests of the Nation, which is understood as an organic whole; the duty of all members of society to obey the interests of the Nation; the destruction of everything that threatens the unity and interests of the Nation.
When the new forces that called themselves liberal-democratic came to the power in March 2014, they were forced into a confrontation with Russia. Once again, the ideology of “Active nationalism” became useful, since it was the only thing that could displace from the public consciousness any sentiments popular in the past about the “fraternal unity of the Slavic peoples”. Stepan Bandera and others like him were soon perceived by Ukrainian society not as criminals, but as heroes. Monuments were placed to them and streets were named after them. So, in 18 cities of Ukraine, the streets are named after Simon Petlyura, the organizer of the Jewish pogroms of the civil war of 1918-20. Moreover, 44 monuments have been erected in honor of Stepan Bandera since the 1990s. All this happened with the active assistance of the authorities, the leading political parties, officially considered as democratic and pro-European. They caught the social trend and actually adopted the main ideological postulates and demands of the nationalists.
In January 2010 Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko awarded Bandera the title of Hero of Ukraine with the wording “for indomitable spirit in the defense of the national idea, demonstrated heroism and self-sacrifice. Three years earlier, the same Yushchenko awarded the title “Hero of Ukraine” to the already mentioned Roman Shukhevich, this time with the wording “for his outstanding personal contribution to the national liberation struggle for freedom and independence of Ukraine and in connection with the 100th anniversary of his birth and the 65th anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
However, in April 2010, the Donetsk District Court declared Yushchenko’s decree on Bandera illegal, citing the fact that he was not a citizen of Ukraine. Along with him, Shukhevich was also deprived of his title by a court decision. After that, attempts to return the “heroes” to their ranks did not stop. The last one took place on July 5, 2021, in the Verkhovna Rada . It is typical that this proposal was put forward within the framework of the Bill to celebrate at the state level the 80th anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which collaborated with the Nazis. It was supported by 78 deputies, including from the propresident Party “Servant of People”. In addition, the initiators of the Bill asked the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky to give the title of Hero of Ukraine to Taras Bulba-Borovets, also one of the leaders of the Ukrainian nationalists of the 30-40s, the founder and commander of the collaborative military unit “Polesskaya Sich”, which participated in the ethnic cleansing of Jews in Ukraine during the Nazi occupation. In addition, the parliamentarians demanded the introduction of a system of State benefits and other support measures for participants of the collaborationist movement.
Thus, on April 9, 2015, the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament of Ukraine, passed (by a majority vote) the law, “On the Legal Status and Commemoration of the Fighters for the Independence of Ukraine in the Twentieth Century. According to this law, the executioners of the Jewish people during the Civil (1918-20) and Second World Wars – fighters who were part of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), known for its cooperation with the Nazis and for participating in the physical destruction of Jews and Poles – were declared “fighters for the Independence” of the country. The list includes not only the already mentioned Stepan Bandera and Simon Petlyura, but also Roman Shukhevich, the Wehrmacht Hauptmann, commander of the subversive group “Nachtigal” during World War II, and many others. The law stipulates criminal liability for denying the heroic role of these people in the country’s history.
If we analyze all of the above, the question of how and why anti-Semitic vandalism is flourishing in a free Ukraine becomes rhetorical. After all, if the “Heroes of Ukraine” were ardent anti-Semites, who had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Jews on their hands, why should ordinary Ukrainians, whom all the official media call upon to follow Heroes’ example, must be any different?
The light of Chanukiah, according to Jewish tradition, symbolizes spiritual fortitude and the victory of holiness over impurity, of light over the surrounding darkness. It symbolizes not only the warmth of each Jew’s soul and his best qualities, but also the desire to bring goodness, blessing and harmony to the world around him. But this is exactly what is not needed by those who today define the ideology of Ukraine.
Dr Valery Engel is a Senior Fellow at CARR and President of the European Centre for Democracy Development in Latvia. See his profile here.
© Valery Engel. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).