04/17/2014 05:55 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2014

Here's What To Know About The Pamphlets Ordering Jews To Register In Ukraine


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took a few moments during a press conference on Thursday to discuss alleged threats against a Jewish community in an eastern city of Ukraine. In particular, Kerry condemned the circulation of pamphlets in the Donetsk that reportedly demanded Jewish citizens older than 16 to "register" and pay a fee of $50 or else "face consequences." Kerry called the leaflets "grotesque," adding that such acts were "beyond unacceptable."

The reports of the pamphlets quickly stirred consternation worldwide. However, as with much of the information coming out of eastern Ukraine right now, it is difficult to establish the exact facts behind the reports. What is the true story behind the emergence of these reprehensible leaflets? Here's a look at what we know right now.

Who Distributed The Pamphlets?

The pamphlets have been circulating near a synagogue in Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine which has been a focal point of the conflict between pro-Russia forces and the Ukrainian government. As you may recall, Donetsk is one of the cities that has had some of its government buildings seized and occupied by pro-Russia activists who are demanding autonomy from Kiev. The pamphlets are reportedly written in the name of Denis Pushilin, the chairman of a pro-Russia militia in Donetsk.

But The Real Source May Be More Complicated

As Zack Beauchamp notes over at Vox, however, it's not so certain that the pro-Russia camp was actually behind the publication or that the pamphlets have any real authority. "Two different sources say Pushilin and his forces deny any connection to the fliers," Beauchamp writes. ThinkProgress also said Pushilin dismissed the reports by stating that "some idiots yesterday were giving out these flyers in targeted areas.”

According to Jewish news site JTA, a Ukrainian news report claimed the fliers were handed out by "three unidentified men in balaclava masks" carrying a Russian flag. Of course, that doesn't reveal much, as balaclavas and Russian flags are pretty ubiquitous in Ukraine right now.

Why Would Someone Do This?

Accusations of fascism and anti-semitism from both pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine camps have been commonplace in Ukraine since the start of the Euromaidan protests, which toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych.

As David Frum explains in The Atlantic, stirring fears of anti-semitism has largely been (at least for the pro-Russian side) a tactic to provoke opposition to a political group by characterizing its members as dangerous neo-Nazis who should not be supported. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, famously brought up the fate of the Ukrainian Jewish community to reporters to justify Russian meddling in Ukraine. Ukraine's Jewish community immediately responded by saying they didn't feel threatened.

Julia Ioffe of The New Republic explains in her excellent analysis of the situation, that the case of the pamphlets could very well be a similar attempt to attach anti-semitic rhetoric to a group in order to smear its members. She also relays that the Jewish community in Donetsk, whose members would be the most directly affected by the directives in these pamphlets, have "dismissed it as 'a provocation,' which it clearly is."

Whether or not the pamphlets are false, it is still deeply troubling that any group would raise the repulsive specter of anti-semitism for political purposes. But a heartening take-away from this episode has been that the response to the anti-semitic message of the pamphlets, whether they are real or concocted, has been one of condemnation by all parties involved.