Pro Russia militia men line up during the funeral of...

Pro Russia militia men line up during the funeral of Lubenec Alexander Vladimirovich, 22, a pro Russia militia member killed during clashes with the Ukrainian Army at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Slavyansk, in Slavyansk, Ukraine, April 26, 2014. Credit: AP

In the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, one of the most contentious issues has been whether neo-fascism is rising under Ukraine's new government and whether it is a real danger or a phantom menace touted by Russian propaganda.

Josef Zissels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, underscored that debate when he appeared last week at Manhattan's YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to talk about Jews and the Ukrainian revolution. Amid growing and ominous tensions, Zissels made a powerful case that the best future for Ukrainians, including Jews, rests with the new pro-Western leadership and independence from coercion by Moscow.

The event, featuring Zissels and Jewish Theological Seminary professor David Fishman, touched on many aspects of Jewish life in Ukraine (whose Jewish population, devastated by the Holocaust and further diminished by emigration to Israel, still remains the fifth largest in Europe). But the conversation returned, again and again, to anti-Semitism and the Ukrainian nationalist right.

Last month, Zissels was the lead signatory of a letter from Ukrainian Jewish leaders that ran as an ad in prominent newspapers and lambasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for hyping mythical threats to Ukraine's Jews as a weapon in the information wars. Today, he remains just as adamant in that view, at one point declaring, "There is no fascism in Ukraine; it's a myth."

Zissels, who spent several years in prison as a Soviet-era dissident, is a passionate champion of Ukrainian independence. "Ukraine is my homeland," he said. "It is very important to me that Ukraine should break out of the imperial clutches and join the family of civilized nations."

Yet, as Fishman noted, it is undeniable that historically, Ukrainian nationalist groups involved in the struggle for independence have engaged in anti-Semitic violence; some even allied themselves with Nazi Germany during World War II. Zissels argued that since the 1960s, the pro-independence dissident movement in Ukraine has been free of anti-Semitism and supportive of Jewish causes.

"Is there some mark of Cain on Ukrainians," he asked, "that no matter what they do, it will be branded anti-Semitic?"

However, the issue is not just a historical one. Much of the discussion focused on Svoboda, a far-right -- some say, neo-Nazi -- party whose leaders have made anti-Semitic and racist comments. Svoboda has about one-tenth of the seats in Ukraine's parliament. As part of the coalition of opposition parties under the old pro-Russia regime, it got several seats in the new interim government. Is this a cause for concern?

The debate on the subject got heated at times, involving not only Zissels and Fishman, but also members of the audience. Zissels insisted that the influence of Svoboda and other ultraright groups is considerably exaggerated (their candidates are projected to get 3 to 4 percent of the vote in May's presidential elections). He also points out that Svoboda's leaders have worked to shed their extremist image, indicating that bigotry is unacceptable in the new Ukraine.

Fishman challenged some of those claims, arguing that Svoboda has a more disturbing and more recent record of anti-Semitism than Zissels allowed. Is Zissels, as a Jewish patriot of Ukraine, too sanguine about anti-Semitism on the pro-independence side? Perhaps; yet he is correct that the fascist menace has been wildly exaggerated by Kremlin propaganda and by Western commentators sympathetic to Russia. "The first priority," Zissels said, "is to stop Russian aggression. The rest of the problems we can solve ourselves, including ethnic disputes and the Svoboda party."

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