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Can Israel Save The Crimea?

Politics / GeoPolitics Mar 09, 2014 - 04:02 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Stalin Said Yes, Stalin Said No

At the height of the German Nazi thrust into the Soviet Union during World War II, in 1941, Stalin sent two leading representatives of the newly established Soviet Jewish Antifascist Committee—Yiddish film and theatre actor Solomon Mikhoels and Yiddish author and poet Itsik Feifer—to the United States and other Allied countries to raise support among Western Jews for the Soviet war effort.  For Stalin, the large Jewish community in the Crimea was a potential trump card.

Long before Stalin, Russia's Czar Catherine the Great conquered Crimea and forced out the Turkish Ottomans in 1783. She opened it up to Jewish settlement, hoping that the Jews would actively prevent any return of the Turks. Between 1783 and the start of the 20th century, as many as 50 000 Jewish families settled in Crimea largely divided into two communities, the rabbinical Krymchaks,  and the Talmud literalist Karaites, who rejected any form of oral interpretation. There were several limits set by the Czars on where Jews could settle and what occupations they could pursue, resulting in a large number of agricultural Jewish communities. Later on, these were key early settlers in Israel's kibbutzim “colonizing the (Palestinian) desert”.
In 1944, the Red Army drove the Germans out of Crimea. Stalin's first action was to deport about 200 000 Crimean Tartars for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. The Tartars were rounded up, allowed to take 80 kilograms of baggage per family, and sent in sealed trains to the Soviet Far East, especially Uzbekistan. This was the signal for another wave of incoming Jewish migrants. One major problem – for the Jews – was however that Jewish residents of the Crimea were deeply engaged, both for and against, in the critical Jewish question of the time—Zionism. By the end of the 19th century, the Crimea was a major focus for training future Zionist pioneers in Israel, developing agricultural and fighting skills before relocating to Palestine. Israel has major commemorative sites for Crimean-origin Jews who gave their lives fighting for Israel in its wars since 1948.

At the time, in 1944, Soviet Jewish Antifascist leaders such as Mikhoels and Feifer met with the Soviet Foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov on a regular base, to discuss the idea of establishing a Jewish homeland in the Crimea. At first, Molotov seemed a sympathetic ally although Stalin had appointed him in May 1939 to replace Maxim Litvinov, whose Jewish origin made him the wrong choice for negotiating the ill-fated Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement with Nazi Germany which enabled Hitler to invade Poland without Soviet opposition. Molotov's wife, from the southern Ukraine was herself Jewish and her sister had emigrated to British Palestine. However, Jewish Antifacist Committee hopes were dashed and upstaged by world events.

The UN Assembly vote for creating the State of Israel in November 1947 made a Jewish homeland in the Crimea superfluous – and Stalin's always ambivalent attitude to Jews flipped to the oppressive side of his personality, no longer seeing Zionism as an ally for Soviet Communism, but a mortal enemy. Stalin ordered the murder of Mikhoels in January 1948 and arrested Feifer along with other Soviet Jewish Antifascist Committee leaders, many of them “disappearing” forever. Stalin's show trials against what were now called Zionist conspirators featured the accusation that with aid from the United States, Soviet Zionists were attempting  to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea. Massive deportations of, and pogroms against Jews in Crimea then became a hallmark of Stalinism.

Divide and Rule

Previously, in the relatively short “Stalinist golden age” for Jews in Crimea, they had been favoured by Stalin and directly benefitted from the oppression of the Tartars. Yiddish farming songs from the Crimea lauded the feats of Abrasha on his tractor, Auntie Leya at the mower, and Beyla working the thresher - symbols of progress in a revolutionary era – but never mentioned the massive squadrons of Red Army soldiers, backed by Ukrainian militias recruited in factories, who rounded up and forced both Muslim and non-Muslim Tartars, as well as Crimean Germans and others into small and poor collective farms, or deported them at gunpoint. As many as 10 000 were simply shot in cold blood. Jewish Crimean tales however recount the story of residual dispossessed Tartars who would stare open-mouthed at the growing and successful Jewish collective farms of the 1930s.

The degree and intensity of Russian Czarist, then Soviet divide and rule in Ukraine was variable but often massive. Also often, it switched or mixed and mingled the ethnic minorities (sometimes majorities) who were designated Enemies of the People. These “minorities” in Ukraine, over time, included Poles, Germans, Tartars, Hungarians, Moldavs and others, as well as Jews, and Russian minorities designated “non-Soviet”. A key example was the Ukrainian Nationalist Organization, originally Austro-Hungarian and founded by Stepan Bandera – who was assassinated by order of Krushchev in 1959.  His organization, especially active in the 1930-1960 period was at times pro-Nazi, pro-Soviet and anti-Semitic but two of Bandera's brothers were deported to Auschwitz, where they died, for refusing to abrogate a declaration of Ukrainian Independence which Hitler totally rejected. Bandera's organization therefore had had no qualms about aiding German Nazi pogroms in Ukraine, but it also militated against the USSR for a future Independent Ukraine in which minorities such as the Jews would have a place on the basis of their identity and loyalty firstly being Ukrainian.

When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Bandera's nationalist organization was quickly resuscitated, due to its long track record of (mostly) opposing both Stalin's and Krushchev's rule in Ukraine. After Viktor Yuschenko became a short-lived and corrupt president of the country in the wake of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, in which Yuschenko proclaimed himself hero, he bestowed Stepan Bandera with the national honor of “Hero of Ukraine”, in 2010, calculating that his move would bolster his nationalist credentials and political popularity. Which did not happen, but following the “Euro Maidan revolution”, or flash mob putsch and overthrow of Ukraine's last elected government, the Bandera organization is now a key player in Kiev and western Ukraine.

Arguments about the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine on one hand, and Russia's right to control Crimea on the other, therefore need to be taken with a pinch of salt. The region in which the present state of Ukraine is carved from is inherently divided and provenly able to shift frontiers, and loyalties, on a rapid basis. On the subject of whether it might be possible for Israel to actively foment pro-Western separatism in Ukraine, this has to be considered as low if not zero more especially because according to Israeli sources, at most 20 000 Jews still live in Crimea.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2014 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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