WASHINGTON — U.S. officials strongly condemned anti-Semitic leaflets allegedly being distributed in eastern Ukraine — even as it became clear that Jews were not in fact being forced to "register" and as questions arose about the provenance and authenticity of the documents.
"In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable, it's grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a press conference after negotiations over the Ukraine crisis with Russia in Geneva. "And any of the people who engage in these kinds of activities — from whatever party or whatever ideology or whatever place they crawl out of — there is no place for that."
The leaflets that were reportedly distributed in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk call on all Jews in the area to register and list all of their property, or face expulsion. The fliers display the signature of Denis Pushilin, the governor of the self-styled "People's Republic of Donetsk" instituted by the pro-Russia separatists. The fliers were reportedly distributed by masked men in front of a synagogue.
Ukraine's Jewish community has become a flashpoint of the media war between Russia and Ukraine. Moscow and the Russian state-controlled media have revived old claims that Ukrainian nationalism is tantamount to Nazism and have amplified the voices of the existing Ukrainian far right, which is intensely anti-Russian. Russian President Vladimir Putin in March described the new Kiev government as "neo-Nazis, nationalists, and anti-Semites on the rampage."
Pushilin, the pro-Russian local figure, has denied that his group put out the leaflets. And Kirill Rudenko, a spokesperson for the Donetsk Republic, also denied the group had anything to do with the flier. "This is a total lie. We haven't handed out any fliers. Our only tasks are defending the occupier buildings and preparing for the referendum," he told BuzzFeed. "This is an American Secret Services provocation to discredit us."
But even as the source of the fliers remains unclear, the U.S. government Thursday mounted a coordinated campaign to tie the flier to the separatists.
"Reports of Jews being forced to register by pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine are chilling, outrageous and must be universally condemned," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes tweeted.
U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoff Pyatt told CNN that the leaflets were "chilling" and "the real deal."
"It's almost inconceivable that this kind of thing could be happening in the 21st century," Pyatt said.
But Pyatt acknowledged to BuzzFeed that U.S. officials do not know who produced the fliers.
"What we confirmed from contacts on the ground is that someone handed these out on Tuesday," Pyatt said. "Of course no one knows who."
In the State Department press briefing, Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf also acknowledged that the U.S. does not know for sure who produced the leaflets.
"We're trying to look into that right now and gather information about where they're coming from," she said.
But Harf said it was "clear" that Jews in Ukraine were being targeted with anti-Semitism: "It's clear that some of this is taking place whether its leaflets or other items that are directed at Jews in Ukraine."
Asked if Russia had planted the leaflets in order to destabilize the area, Harf said, "I don't want to go around accusing people," and, "We have concern about anyone we'd find out is behind this."
There is no evidence that any authorities in Ukraine, whether on the pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian sides, have attempted to round up Jews. And the authenticity of the documents is being questioned, including by major Jewish leaders in the region and in the United States.
"We are skeptical about the fliers' authenticity, but the instructions clearly recall the Nazi era and have the effect of intimidating the local Jewish community," said Abe Foxman, the president of the Anti-Defamation League, in a statement. "We strongly condemn the anti-Semitic content, but also all attempts to use anti-Semitism for political purposes."
"I think it is a provocation," the synagogue's rabbi Pinchus Vishedsky reportedly said. "I don't think it is real but the police need to do something about it."
A reporter for the Daily Beast went to the office where Jews, according to the leaflet, were supposed to register; none had, and the men working there said that they were not going to charge a registration fee for the Jews in the area.
Rosie Gray is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C. Gray reports on politics and foreign policy.
Contact Rosie Gray at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
Contact Max Seddon at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.