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A Time of Vigilance in the Ukraine

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In the last 24 hours there has been a flurry of reports about the distribution of leaflets written in Russian that warn Jews in the eastern Ukrainian province of Donetsk that they are guilty of supporting rebellion and must register with with pro-Russia authorities. Since the story broke, there have also been strong indications that the leaflets may not have been authorized by the provisional government in Donetsk and could be anything from the work of a rogue group within the pro-Russia camp to an attempt by the pro-Ukraine side to provoke Jews and others into seeing the pro-Russia forces as a threat. If it is the latter, then the Ukrainians would be mirroring the propaganda used by the Russians, who have tried to paint the original Ukrainian independence movement as dominated by fascists and neo-Nazis. Of course, all these charges and countercharges resonate because Ukraine has been the site of some of the worst discrimination and violence against Jews in the past, and both the pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia movements harbor those with virulently anti-Semitic views.

These provocations come at a time of year when two always-overlapping seasons add both fuel to the fire and depth to our perspective. While Passover reminds us each year to celebrate freedom from tyranny, the week leading to Easter evokes memories of some of the worst times endured by Jews, especially in the Ukraine and other places, in what was called the Pale of Settlement. Stoked by a religious fervor and doctrines that have since been repudiated in much of the Christian world, Christians subjected Jews to vicious pogroms, leading to widespread harassment, destruction and, on too many occasions to count, massacres.

And yet, even as this season arrives again in this very place in the wake of these new outrages, there are differences that must not be ignored. The state of Israel stands at the ready. Jewish communities throughout the world are unafraid to speak up, and organizations such as the Joint Distribution Committee, the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, and the Worldwide Masorti Movement are on the scene. There have been condemnations from countries around the world, including the United States, Russia, and the Ukraine, with representatives of the government in Kiev as well as the pro-Russia separatists both officially disassociating themselves from whatever factions in their midst might be playing on anti-Jewish sentiment. None of this means that the danger to Jews isn't real, even if the flyers are, to some extent, not what they profess to be. However, the differences between what is happening today and what happened in the past are real as well.

Passover itself captures this double message of being secure in our freedom even as we are mindful of the threats that still linger. The Torah refers to Passover as leil shimurim, a time of watchfulness. On the one hand, this was the night in which we were protected as death passed over us in Egypt, sealing the fate of our oppressors. On the other, this is a night for vigilance in observing the rituals that imbue our people with a deep sense of what it means to be free. One the one hand, we recall those who have risen to destroy us. On the other, we traditionally leave the door unlocked or even open.

We are challenged these days by the ugly reminders of anti-Semitism on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict and, of course, so recently in our own backyard. We must both remain vigilant against those who would do us harm and, in another interpretation of the word shimurim, anticipate not increasing danger but redemption and peace.