When the Serbs and Croats were involved in conflict in the early 1990s, prior to the Balkan war spreading to Bosnia, the Jewish community in America was getting calls from Serbian Jews urging our communal defense organizations to support the Serbs because of Croatian treatment of its Jews during the Holocaust.
We responded that it is indeed true that Croatian behavior during the Holocaust was among the worst in Europe, but that did not justify what Milosevic, the Serbian ruler, was doing to stoke conflict. Eventually, when ethnic cleansing in Bosnia became a central theme of the Yugoslav conflict, we spoke out forcefully.
I think of that now as the situation in Ukraine deteriorates. There is no doubt that Ukraine, like Croatia, was one of those places where local militias played a key role in the murder of thousands of Jews during World War II. It is also true that anti-Semitism has by no means disappeared from Ukraine. In recent months there have been a number of serious anti-Semitic incidents and there are at least two parties in Ukraine, Svoboda and Right Sector, that have within them some extreme nationalists and anti-Semites.
Having said that, it is pure demagoguery and an effort to rationalize criminal behavior on the part of Russia to invoke the anti-Semitism ogre into the struggle in Ukraine. In fact, it is fair to say that there was more anti-Semitism manifest in the worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement than we have seen so far in the revolution taking place in Ukraine.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin to play the anti-Semitism card is of a piece with his claim that Russian troops had to invade Crimea to protect ethnic Russians from alleged extremist Ukrainians. With one difference: When he speaks about alleged oppression of Russians in Ukraine, he is rallying his own countrymen primarily. And it is working, as reports indicate a surge in Russian patriotism and support for the president.
When Putin speaks of alleged anti-Semitism, as he did in a press conference on March 4 when he described the revolutionaries in Ukraine as rampaging, reactionary, nationalistic "anti-Semitic forces," he is talking to the world. In effect he is saying, you advocates of human rights and remembering the Holocaust, where are you when anti-Semitism, so rife in Ukraine historically, rears its ugly head again.
For the Anti-Defamation League, we like to say that it is as important when we say something is not anti-Semitism as when say it is. This is partly a moral principle of getting it right and partly a pragmatic perspective, a matter of credibility, wanting leaders and individuals to stand up when real anti-Semitism arises and not be turned off by false claims.
That is why it is so important to say that Russia's claims about anti-Semitism in Ukraine's revolution are simply not true. They are an effort to delegitimize the actions of the Ukrainian people and to win sympathy for Russia's defiance of international law.
Moreover, it debases the currency when false claims about anti-Semitism take hold. In the same vein is the theme of analogizing current events, large and small, to the Nazis. We speak out repeatedly about the growing trivialization of the Holocaust by comparing everything under the sun to Nazi behavior.
Now along comes an event, however, that actually does evoke memories of what the Germans did prior to World War II and efforts to compare the one aspect of Russian policy to German policy -- as Hillary Clinton did recently -- should not reflexively be condemned.
It is, of course, reprehensible to suggest that Putin's policies in Ukraine are anything akin to Nazi policies during World War II. But it is not absurd to evoke Hitler's lie about how Sudeten Germans were being oppressed and assaulted by Czechs to justify his invasion of Czechoslovakia. That is exactly what Putin is doing in Crimea and he needs to be condemned for it as forcefully as the world should have condemned the German move into the Sudetenland.
This is a critical moment for the international community. Allowing false claims about the mistreatment of different groups to justify military action against all the rules of international law can set a precedent for other volatile areas around the globe.
Getting this right in the face of false claims and outrageous behavior may go a long way to determine the future stability of international relations for years to come.