As a journalist who covered the fall of the USSR’s communist government in 1990 — and a descendant of Ukrainians who fled the country for Poland during the Russian Civil War — I believe antisemitism is central to Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked assault on the 43 million citizens of Ukraine. Right now he appears to be focused on assassinating Ukraine’s Jewish President Volodymyr Zelensky or placing him under arrest.
If the latter happens, we can expect Zelensky to be airlifted to a Stalinesque show trial somewhere between St. Petersburg and Vladivostok.
Putin's assertion — that Zelensky is a puppet for neo-Nazis threatening Russian security — raises a fascinating question for all Jewish leaders. Is it possible that his big lie could be a leap back toward centuries of persecution of Russian Jews? Could this lie become the pretext for antisemitism-inspired invasions elsewhere?
Until the Russian Revolution of 1917, Jews, were banned from public schools and most professions. They lived with the constant fear of pogroms. Millions were forced to live in the Pale of Settlement, which included much of Ukraine. Jews later became victims of Stalin’s relentless campaign of antisemitic purges, forced labor camps and liquidation for imaginary crimes against the state.
On the eve of World War II, an estimated 1.5 million Jews lived in Ukraine. A million of them perished during the Holocaust, including three of Zelensky's great uncles. After the war, many of those who survived lost the right to emigrate or worship.
Now in the tradition of the blood libel — one that includes the original publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Russia in 1903 — Putin claims he is defending Russia against Jewish leaders secretly pursuing a Nazi agenda. In the spirit of the all-powerful Tsars, he has initiated a reign of terror that broadly threatens European security.
Assuming that Putin “wins” this genocidal war and installs his own puppet government in hostile territory, it’s worth asking what will happen to the Jews remaining in Ukraine. One recent census puts that number at 43,000 but the true total could be quadruple that since some Jews hide their identity for security reasons.
Will some of them be liquidated or face trial because they were, in Putin's imagination, trying to promote the ideology of the Third Reich? Could they join a new exodus aiming at exporting the Jewish community he sees as a threat to his new world order?
Right now the world is focused on Putin’s racist game plan and his long-term agenda to seize the Baltic states and other democracies formerly part of the USSR. What will happen if his war cry against Ukraine’s Jewish head of state evolves into a battle on these other fronts that are part of NATO?
By defying a Jewish leader, the Soviet dictator has found common cause with interests that would readily eliminate Israel from the face of the earth. He would also be allied with those self-proclaimed Nazis who have escalated every form assault on Jewish communities around the world, including everything from cemetery vandalism to synagogue murders.
In the process, he will be well on his way to creating an international militia portraying Jewish leaders like Zelensky as a potent threat to national security. By crusading for the elimination of the democratically elected President of Ukraine, he is inspiring potential assassins and terrorists to attack Jewish leaders elsewhere. This, of course, is the purest form of Nazi rhetoric.
It is tempting for Putin’s subjects to look across the border and appreciate what three decades of democracy means for Ukrainians. Destroying the country’s independence will inspire autocrats everywhere to crack down on citizens who believe they are free to elect their leaders regardless of race, creed or color. Building on his Ukraine strategy, Putin might create a private gestapo determined to arrest Jewish suspects and force them to “confess” KGB-style to Nazi inspired crimes in Russia.
Ultimately this big lie could lead to Putin’s undoing as we have seen with his predecessors such as Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. The time frame for this process depends on how quickly the world understands that an attack on a Jewish leader like Zelensky is an attack on all who believe in democracy. I, for one, am looking forward to Putin’s inevitable trial as a war criminal.
Roger Rapoport is the Muskegon producer of three award winning feature films, Waterwalk, Pilot Error and Coming Up For Air. His new play Old Heart, adapted from the Peter Ferry novel and directed by Karl King premieres May 14 and 15 at Detroit’s Redford Theatre. He can be reached at email@example.com