So clear was the line between good and evil during World War II that it virtually obliterated the idea that Jews could ever be on two sides of the same international conflict. The fact that in World War I there were Jews who fought for Germany while other Jews fought for the Allies seems hard for us to understand now. And it might be why it’s hard to understand why the remnants of Eastern European Jewry are lining up on either side in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
A hint of how divisive and dangerous this conflict could be came last week when a prominent Russian Jew said that if he had a chance he would hang two prominent Ukrainian Jews in the public square. On the surface, the threat made by Yevgeny Satanovsky, a former president of the Russian Jewish Congress, against Joseph Zissels, leader of the Vaad Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, and Igor Kolomoisky, a Jewish billionaire who is the governor of the district of Dnepropetrovsk in Eastern Ukraine, is about the interpretation of history. Satanovsky accused the Ukrainian Jews of downplaying the role of a Ukrainian nationalist leader in the massacre of Jews during World War II.
But the contemporary context is how the conflict between Ukraine and Russia — and the latter’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebel forces in Eastern Ukraine — are turning the region’s Jews against each other. Satanovsky’s threat of vigilante justice is a reminder of how words matter and how they have the potential to incite violence. It came days after Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s undiplomatic foreign minister, announced at a campaign rally that Israel’s Arab citizens “who are against us” should be beheaded.
And, of course, the United States is not immune to rhetorical battles. In keeping with the highly partisan approach to everything in Washington, the arguments over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress became almost fighting words. And within the Jewish community, J Street, which is holding its annual conference in Washington beginning this weekend, is under constant bombardment from those who are violently (rhetorically at least) opposed to how the liberal group shows its support of Israel.
Even those who are not on one side of an international divide can poison the atmosphere with vicious, self-serving, blanket attacks. It’s time to cool down the rhetoric.