A development in Eastern Ukraine has set social media on fire and triggered outrage around the world.
In the city of Donetsk, someone distributed fliers ordering Jews to register with the separatists who have taken over government buildings.
Even though nobody in Ukraine believed the leaflet was real, the fliers hit a nerve.
It all started at a Donetsk synagogue after evening prayers two nights ago, when a group of masked men in camouflage showed up. Everyone says they were very polite as they distributed a stack of leaflets. The fliers said local Jews must come to occupied buildings with a passport, family history, a list of possessions and a $50 registration fee — a huge sum in these parts.
According to the leaflet, the penalty for failing to register could be deportation, loss of citizenship and confiscation of assets.
“I didn’t believe a word of it. You’d have to really be a fool to write anything like this,” says Yaguda Kellerman, deputy chief of the Donetsk Jewish Community Center. “You walk down the street with a beard and kippah [yarmulke], and you never experience any problems here. I was born in Donetsk.”
At first, everyone here more or less ignored the flier. But then a few stories about it popped up in local media, and it caught fire online. From a distance, the story didn’t seem so hard to believe. These orders have echoes of the Holocaust, and when people in the West think of Jews in Eastern Europe, pogroms and massacres are often the first things that come to mind. This leaflet plays into people’s worst fears about the present-day political unrest.
Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny in Kiev leads Ukraine’s progressive Jewish congregations.
“I received so many letters from the United States of America, from the U.K., from European countries, even from Australia,” Dukhovny says.
He says he received 200 messages in one day. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made sure the flier got even more attention.
“This is not just intolerable, it’s grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable,” Kerry said in Geneva.
Of course, Kerry has a political interest in portraying the separatists as Nazis. And the separatists have been working for months to portray the other side as Nazis. Russian President Vladimir Putin often describes himself as a defender of the Jews.
Vitaly Ivanov is a press attache for the rebels in Donetsk. NPR spoke to him in the occupied government building that’s covered with signs saying “anti-fascist.”
“Excuse me but when we are struggling against discrimination by the Ukrainian government, how can we discriminate against the rights of other minorities?” Ivanov says.
The rebels put out their own flier, calling the accusations of anti-Semitism unbelievable. They urged people to call an emergency hotline if they see anyone distributing the leaflets.
The Jews of Donetsk realize they have become pawns in a political game here. The region’s chief rabbi, Pinchas Vyshetsky, says that’s unacceptable.
“What I ask all the political leaders in Ukraine [is], leave us alone. We are not a political organization. We’re a religious community, and the people who come to the synagogue didn’t come to take part in a political meeting,” Vyshetsky says.
Vyshetsky says this flier was intended solely as a provocation. And in a way, the fact that it’s getting so much attention means the provocation worked.
As for who made the leaflets, no one has been able to answer that question.
One man at the synagogue said the authors should step forward and take some credit. In one afternoon, they created the most famous leaflet in the world.