Registration of Jews and other human beings

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Flyer from Donetsk

Flyer from Donetsk

Phil has reported on the recent incident in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk where flyers were distributed in the vicinity of the local synagogue warning Jews to register with the local authorities.  The flyers purportedly were authored by pro-Russian forces seeking to take control of the city, but their authenticity has been doubted from the outset.

It seems certain that there was no actual effort to require registration of the Jews of Donetsk.  The flyers may well have been a hoax perpetrated by pro-Ukrainians trying to make the Russian contingent appear anti-Semitic to counter genuine allegations of anti-Semitism among the new regime in Kiev.

No one knows for sure who is responsible, but condemnations have been pouring in from all corners.  Phil’s post quotes John Kerry’s outrage, which appears to treat the flyers as genuine, and Abe Foxman’s, which expresses skepticism over their origin.  The Chief Rabbi of Donetsk condemned the flyers as a frightening hoax but wants the community to move on.  Most recently, Ukrainian PM Yatsenyuk has weighed in, vowing to bring to justice the “bastards” responsible.  One thing all public figures agree on is that it would be “beyond unacceptable” and “grotesque,” in Kerry’s words, to actually require registration of Jews, thereby establishing a basis for treating Jewish citizens differently from non-Jewish ones.

Contrast this uproar with the recent decision of the Israeli Supreme Court upholding the requirement that Israeli citizens could not identify themselves as having “Israeli” nationality for the country’s population registry.  A group of Israelis had petitioned merely for the option of choosing such a nationality that would not distinguish between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, and the Court rejected their claim.  Israel will continue to require its citizens to register as Jewish or one of several other non-Jewish categories, just as it has been doing for more than 65 years.

Are the situations comparable?  I think so.  In both cases, there is an attempt to distinguish groups of citizens from each other on the basis of their ancestry or ethnic identity.  Such distinctions can only be meaningful if the different groups are treated differently.  The Ukrainian registration plan, if it had been genuine, would be designed to identify Jews in the population for some sort of special (mis)treatment.  The Israeli insistence on identifying its citizens as Jewish or not has the mirror-image motivation of granting privileges and status to Jews over non-Jews.  In both cases, there is an effort to treat citizens differently, based upon characteristics of birth, in a manner that would be deemed unthinkable in the U.S.

It may be true that there is an emotional reaction to an Eastern European policy that is reminiscent of the first signs of anti-Jewish hostility in the 1930’s – singling Jews out for a nefarious purpose.  But the actual registration of Jews in Ukraine, while deeply troubling, would not be significantly different from Israel’s legal requirement that is deemed an inherent part of its existence as a Jewish State.

There are, of course, two enormous differences between the Ukrainian and Israeli registration requirements.  First, the former is entirely fictional, and in fact eerily similar to the 2006 hoax that Iran’s Jews would be required to wear a yellow star on their clothing.  It seems that any suggestion of virulent anti-Semitism, no matter how implausible or bizarre, and especially if it occurs in an enemy du jour like Iran or Russia/Ukraine, is eagerly believed as confirmation that Jew-hating lurks just underneath the surface.  The second difference is that the Ukraine hoax has ignited an international furor, while Israel’s longstanding policy of differentiating between its citizens barely draws a yawn.

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