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Jews in Ukraine told to identify themselves, Kerry says

Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that Jewish residents of one city in east Ukraine were issued a flier instructing them to identify themselves.
Two Jewish men read prayers in a synagogue in Donetsk, Ukraine, on April 18, 2014.
Two Jewish men read prayers in a synagogue in Donetsk, Ukraine, on April 18, 2014.

Jewish residents of one city in east Ukraine were issued a flier instructing them to identify themselves, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday, signaling that Russia's growing military presence in the region could spark a new wave of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet bloc.

“Just in the last couple of days, notices were sent to Jews in one city, indicating that they had to identify themselves as Jews and obviously the accompanying threat implied, is or threatened or suffer the consequences, one way or the other,” Kerry said during a press conference in Geneva, following a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian and EU representatives.

The leader of the Donetsk People's Republic has denied any connection with the flier, which bared his name as the signature, according to a statement from the Anti-Defamation League.

“We are skeptical about the flier’s authenticity, but the instructions clearly recall the Nazi era and have the effect of intimidating the local Jewish community,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, in the statement. The organization condemned "the anti-Semitic content, but also all attempts to use anti-Semitism for political purposes.”

"It is clear that some of this is taking place, whether it is leaflets or other items that are directed at Jews in Ukraine," State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said during Thursday's briefing. "I think we're still trying to determine who's behind it." 

Earlier Thursday, Israeli media reported that as people were leaving a Synagogue on Passover they were given a leaflet instructing Jewish residents over the age of 16 to bring identification, religious documents, documents verifying property holdings, and a $50 registration fee to "the Commissioner for Nationalities in the Donetsk Regional Administration."

They were told to "register" with the pro-Russian militants who have seized the city "or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated." According to the Israeli news site Ynet, home to one of the country's major newspapers, the leaflet said the Jewish community was being targeted because its leaders "oppose the pro-Slavic People's Republic of Donetsk." 

Roughly six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust during World War II, including over one million children. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, as Jewish families were displaced and unable to return to Europe, anti-Semitism persisted in the Soviet Union, resulting in mass immigration.

Ukraine erupted into a civil conflict last winter after its president passed on an economic partnership with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia, setting pro-Russian and pro-European factions of the former Soviet Republic at odds. Protests turned violent earlier this year, and Russia fanned the flames by sending troops in unmarked uniforms to seize Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which is home to a leased Russian naval base. After residents voted to succeed from Ukraine, Russia annexed Crimea on March 21. Since then, pro-Russian militants have taken control of at least 10 eastern Ukrainian cities, while 40,000 Russian troops are poised along the shared border.  

From Geneva, Kerry said that Ukrainian, Russian, and E.U. representatives agreed on preliminary steps to de-escalate the tension in Ukraine. If militants return seized buildings and abstain from violence, Kerry said, Ukraine would offer amnesty to those who have not committed capital crimes. The agreement does not require Russia to remove its troops

“All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions,” a statement from the four officials said. “The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism.”

“None of us leave here with the sense that the job is done because the words are on the paper,” Kerry said in Geneva. He warned of further U.S. sanctions on Russia if it fails to deescalate the tension on the ground, saying Russia has a “huge impact on all of those forces” in eastern Ukraine. Obama issued a similar warning during a Wednesday interview with CBS News. 

Earlier Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted his right to “use the armed forces” to “help [Ukrainians] independently decide their fate,” granted to him by the upper house of Russia’s Parliament. 

President Obama responded to the Geneva agreement during a Thursday press conference and said he hopes Russian officials will honor agreements to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine -- but he’s not very optimistic.

“My hope is that we actually do see follow through over the next several days,” Obama said, “but I don’t think given past performance that we can count on that.”

Obama said the U.S. is prepared to respond to Russian interference, but will not be moving forward with further sanctions quite yet. "During the last week, we put in place additional consequences that we can impose on Russia if we don't see an improving situation on the ground." 

The president spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier, and planned to speak with British Prime Minister David Cameron later in the day to coordinate on additional consequences should Russia renege on the deal. Military options, however, are not on the table, Obama said. 

Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat in New York, urged Kerry in a statement "to do everything posisble to ensure that Jewish and other minority communities throughout [Ukraine] are protected from any form of prejudice," saying the "highly alarming" report of Jews being told to register in Donetsk "reeks of age-old Semitic policies." Rep. Jerrold Nadler called the reports "deeply disturbing." 

"While the details of who exactly authored and distributed these flyers are still emerging, the world must not ignore these anti-Semitic attacks," Nadler said in a statement.