The Obama administration is not backing down from denouncing what appears to be a sickening hoax.
White House officials are condemning the circulation of anti-Semitic pamphlets in eastern Ukraine, a day after Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that notices were distributed to people exiting a synagogue in Donetsk this week instructing Jews to register their identities and property with an area “commissioner for nationalities.”
The flier bore the name of the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russia separatist movement that is occupying government buildings in Donetsk and other eastern cities, in the signature field. That person has denied any connection with the letter, which is considered an ugly expression of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet bloc country, and not an actual policy.
“The president expressed his disgust quite bluntly,” U.S. Representative to the United Nations Susan Rice said during Friday’s White House briefing. “I think we all found word of those pamphlets to be utterly sickening, and they have no place in the 21st century.”
The leaflets are reminiscent of the Holocaust era, when more than six million European Jews were persecuted and murdered during World War II.
“We’re very concerned about the evidence of anti-Semitism,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell Friday. “We haven’t been able to assign exactly who was responsible for distributing them; nonetheless, we’re going to stay on top of it as we do incidents of anti-Semitism anywhere in the world.”
NBC’s Jim Maceda, reporting from Donetsk, described the “sheer shock” among recipients of the letter this week.
“A group of about 100 of them were coming out of the synagogue after Passover prayers two nights ago when they noticed three men masked with backpacks and handing out these leaflets, and then after handing them out and tacking one on the door of the synagogue, leaving quite quickly,” NBC’s Jim Maceda said Friday on Andrea Mitchell Reports.
“To test the [leaflet’s] authenticity, they sent a Jewish family to test the address, which is the headquarters of the pro-Russians, as if to register themselves and found people there basically knew nothing about the registration and wanted to have nothing to do with it,” Maceda reported.
The letter may be a propaganda tool aiming to discredit the pro-Russian militia or the Ukrainian government. The separatists have taken control of buildings in 10 Ukrainian cities, while an estimated 40,000 Russian soldiers are readied along the Ukraine-Russia border.
While Kerry and representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the E.U. agreed to preliminary steps to de-escalate tension in the region during a meeting in Geneva Thursday, neither Kerry nor Obama seemed optimistic that Russia would honor its agreements.
“None of us leave here with the sense that the job is done because the words are on the paper,” Kerry said in Geneva, warning of the treat of future sanctions.
“My hope is that we actually do see follow through over the next several days,” Obama said during a Thursday press conference, “but I don’t think given past performance that we can count on that.”