The federal Conservatives walk a delicate path with Jewish groups in this country as they extend their full support to an interim Ukrainian government that is known to contain anti-Semitic elements.
Jewish leaders in Canada have differing ideas about the magnitude of the threat to Ukraine’s Jews, who number about 300,000. And they are dismissive of President Vladimir Putin’s assertion that Russian troops have been sent into the country to protect the local populace against anti-Semitism.
But some Jews in Ukraine do fear they could be targeted for attack – unease fostered by the statements of Olech Tyahnybok, the leader of the nationalist Svoboda party which is playing a key role in the new government, who in 2004 alleged that a “Jewish-Muscovite Mafia” was ruling Ukraine.
In recent days, there have been reports of anti-Semitic vandalism and a Molotov cocktail being thrown at a synagogue. One prominent rabbi in Kiev urged the city’s Jews to leave the country. And some Canadian Jewish leaders have taken their anxiety about anti-Semitism in Ukraine to cabinet ministers in the Conservative government, which for years has targeted Canada’s Jewish community for special political attention.
Frank Dimant, CEO of B’nai Brith Canada, said in a telephone interview this week that his group is “very much concerned that part of the element that was calling for freedom and change in Ukraine was made up of neo-Nazi and extreme right-wingers.”
Mr. Dimant asked Immigration Minister Chris Alexander last week to advocate against any tolerance of anti-Semitism in Ukraine. He also asked that Jews who want to leave Ukraine, and who want to come to Canada rather than Israel for family reunification or professional purposes, be allowed to do so.
“We wanted the government to be sympathetic and he said they would be,” he said.
Mr. Alexander said Wednesday that everyone facing persecution has access to Canada’s asylum programs. “We’re concerned about anti-Semitism in several parts of Europe and the world over,” he said. “If there are pressures for us to do more on the immigration side, we’ll look at that.”
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was in Ukraine last week and spoke to political leaders there, including one who has been accused of anti-Semitism.
“I raised Canada’s concern about anti-Semitism and said that, ‘you know, all political leaders, whether they be in government or opposition, should try to build a pluralistic Ukraine that’s fully representative of the diversity of the country,’” Mr. Baird said Tuesday without identifying the Ukrainian leader who was the recipient of his advice.
Mr. Baird said he also met Jews who were part of the protests that forced out former president Viktor Yanukovych, and they said the problems of anti-Semitism had been exaggerated.
Shimon Fogel, the chief executive of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs in Canada, said he believes Jews are among the pawns being exploited to advance the parochial agendas of multiple stakeholders in Ukraine. Mr. Fogel and Mr. Dimant both agree that is the game being played by Mr. Putin.
The Russian President earned credibility with members of Russia’s Jewish community by introducing measures during his first term in office that have enhanced their safety. “The issue now is that he’s exploiting those credentials in adding just one more rationale for the Russian posturing and intervention,” said Mr. Fogel, whose group has denounced the Russian invasion of Crimea.
Mr. Fogel said he does not believe the fears of anti-Semitism have been validated on the ground. If the situation were to change, and the interim government in Ukraine allowed for a spike in anti-Semitism, he said he would ask Canada to address the situation. But “from what I understand,” Mr. Fogel said, “Ukrainian leaders understand that the fate of the Jews during this particular period is an important litmus test for their general comportment and orientation.”