(RNS) Now it seems clear that last week’s story about Ukrainian Jews being ordered to “register” was both real and a hoax. I can only hope that this incident is as beneficial to the Ukrainians as Westboro Baptist Church has been to the United States.
No doubt you’ve seen something about the facts on the ground: On April 14, as Jews in the city of Donetsk left a Passover event, masked men passed out fliers. The handout ordered the city’s Jews to register or risk deportation. It was “signed” by Denis Pushilin, one of the leaders of the pro-Russian faction that has occupied several buildings in Donetsk.
The fliers were real. Reports and photos quickly hit the Internet. To which the widest initial reaction was some version of “uh-oh.” That’s because reports of anti-Semitism involving Ukraine or Russia have a veneer of truthiness from a long and unhappy history.
Reports of attacks on Jews in the area now called Ukraine go back to the 1100s. In the late 1800s, pogroms killed hundreds and discriminatory laws were passed. And several political parties active in Ukraine since the fall of the USSR have had anti-Semitic agendas.
Russian history is no friendlier. The list of pogroms is long. Russians were responsible for creating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery first published in 1903 and used to the present day to justify attacks on Jews. And under Soviet leadership, discrimination against Jews was commonplace.
So “uh-oh” seemed like a reasonable reaction. But guess what happened? Pretty much everybody with any profile in the current Ukrainian conflict condemned the handout.
The guy whose name was on it? He told Fox News that not only was he not responsible for it but “if you read the text you will see that it’s relatively badly written.”
Leaders of pro-Ukrainian protests have been equally quick to condemn the flier. Dmitro Tkachenko, one of the leaders of a Ukrainian-unity rally in Donesk, told Time magazine that the flyer was “a brilliant piece of disinformation” against the separatists.
And the current Ukrainian prime minister told NBC’s David Gregory that he’s urged “Ukrainian military and security forces and Ukrainian Department of Homeland Security urgently to find these bastards and to bring them to justice.”
What’s this got to do with Westboro, the church whose members are notorious for bringing their “God hates fags” signs to military funerals?
Westboro has served as a vaccine for the American body politic. Vaccines work by provoking an immune response without actually creating grave illness. And Westboro has done exactly that for the illness of discrimination against LGBT people.
If Westboro’s protests have inspired a single convert to its side, I’ve yet to hear of it. But it has inspired thousands of people over the years to create counter-protests, fundraising events, and discussions about anti-gay discrimination. And sometimes those actions include people whose religious position is pretty stern on the sinfulness of same-sex attraction.
On balance, therefore, I’d say Westboro has been a net good thing for our country.
It’s a challenge to find an optimistic one-eighth-full glass in the mess that embroils Ukraine these days. But this may be it: That history has moved far enough that none of the principals are happy to be tarred with using Nazi-style tactics toward Jews.
That may be worth two cheers.
(Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based freelance writer. He can be reached at Jeff.Weiss@religionnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @WeissFaithWrite.)
YS/AMB END WEISS