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Expressing Unease With Holocaust Comparisons, Ukraine Jewish Leaders Denounce Russian Claims of 'Denazification'

Ukrainian Jewish leaders continued to push back on Thursday against the ongoing stream of propaganda from Moscow depicting their country's leaders as "neo-Nazis."

In a lengthy interview on Wednesday with Ukrainian News, a local media outlet, Ihor Kolomoisky and Michael Tkach -- joint heads of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine (UJCU) -- countered the Kremlin's insistence that it is "denazifying" Ukraine, at the same time advising both sides to avoid drawing comparisons between the Russian invasion and the Nazi Holocaust.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has spearheaded the propaganda effort to persuade the Russian public and foreign sympathizers with his regime that the assault on Ukraine, now in its 22nd day, is for the purpose of "denazification." In an uncompromising speech on Wednesday, Putin accused the western alliance of having joined "Nazi" ranks by launching an economic "blitzkrieg" against Russia in the form of crushing sanctions. Putin added that western media outlets and social media platforms had been co-opted in an anti-Russian information campaign that had "direct analogues to the antisemitic pogroms carried out by Nazis in Germany in the 1930s."

Such bombast seemingly carries little weight with the UJCU leaders, however. "We declare with confidence that there are no Nazis in power in Ukraine," they said.

Pointing to the annual reports on antisemitism in Ukraine compiled by their organization, which is composed of 140 associations and communities around the country, the UJCU leaders said that the number of antisemitic incidents over the last three years had remained consistently low.

"In 2021, we recorded 52 cases of antisemitism, in 2020 there were 49, in 2019, there were 56. That is, we see that for the third year in a row, the level of antisemitism in Ukraine remains unchanged," they commented.

The pair also stressed the passage of a law by the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, on Feb. 16 imposing tough new penalties for antisemitic incitement. Certain antisemitic crimes, for example violence against Jews executed by organized groups, will now be punishable with prison sentences ranging from five to eight years. Fines for antisemitic incitement have also been increased to a maximum of $600 -- a significant sum in the Ukrainian context.

Moreover, the stiffer penalties approved by the parliament last month came on the heels of a law criminalizing antisemitism passed last September. That legislation coincided with commemorations for the 80th anniversary of the infamous Babi Yar massacre, when 34,000 Jewish men, women and children were killed in mass shootings on the edge of the capital Kyiv on Sept. 29-30, 1941. The bill was signed into law the following month by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is himself Jewish.

"Is there a need to 'denazify' a country that, for the first time in 30 years of independence, has adopted a law 'On Combating and Preventing Antisemitism'?" the UJCU leaders asserted.

Asked about comparisons between the Russian regime and the Nazis, the pair counseled against analogies with World War II. Zelensky insinuated during an address to the German parliament on Thursday that despite the annual commemorations of the Holocaust, its moral lessons had been abandoned.

"Every year politicians repeat 'Never Again,' and now, we see that these words simply mean nothing," Zelensky said. "A people is being destroyed in Europe."

"We suggest not to draw parallels between the tragedy of the Holocaust and other tragedies, each of them is unique," the UJCU leaders said in the interview, ahead of that address. However, the two leaders did identify an overlap between the "Z" symbol visible on many Russian tanks and armored vehicles in Ukraine and the Nazi swastika. "The semantic similarities between the 'Z' and the swastika as a symbol that represents some kind of bloody regime can, of course, be found," they said.

The UJCU leaders said that some Jewish communal infrastructure across Ukraine had been badly damaged by the Russian onslaught. Following the Russian strike on March 1 that hit the site of the Babi Yar massacre, they said, a number of synagogues, cemeteries and youth centers had all sustained damage. Photographs of a Hillel youth center in the eastern city of Kharkiv in the aftermath of a Russian strike showed its main assembly hall devastated by the impact.

Asked whether the State of Israel's response to the invasion was "sufficient," the UJCU leaders took care to underline that "the Jewish Community of Ukraine and the government of Israel are practically unrelated forces, but we hope for more active actions of the executive branch of the government of the State of Israel."

Israeli statements critical of Russia had "intensified" in recent days, they added, highlighting the comments of Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid "that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is devoid of any justification, and that Israel will not provide Russia with an opportunity to circumvent sanctions."

[Source: By Ben Cohen, The Algemeiner, NY, 17Mar22]

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