Starting on June 8 and running through July 1, Ukraine and Poland will jointly host the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship. In the run-up to what will be a worldwide spectacle for football fans, Europe will be looking at the games with a critical eye as Ukraine specifically faces scathing criticism for its abysmal record on human rights and its overt acceptance of anti-semitic, racist, and homophobic taunts by audience members at football games throughout the country.
In the UK, the Evening Standard, BBC, and other media outlets have reported extensive abuse being directed from Ukrainian football fans in the form of monkey-noises, homophobic chanting, and displays of swastikas and Nazi symbolism. The threat has reached such a high level that the Foreign Office has warned those Britons attending the games who are of non-white, ethnic, orpart of a religious minority, to be particularly vigilant of hooliganism, physical assault, and potentially violent behavior.
Theories concerning the origins of this deep-seeded hate range from a lack of contact with outsiders, to xenophobia still lingering from Soviet times. Ironically, this area of Europe was once the beacon of multiculturalism. Known to Jews as the Pale of Settlement, the region comprised of present-day Ukraine and Poland was once the heart of Jewish life in Europe. The cities in this region most notably Lviv, one of the host cities, had a richness of Polish, Jewish, Russian, Ukrainian, and other cultures mixed in. It is upsetting that anti-semitism still lingers on today in the region despite the fact that there are nearly no Jews left in western Ukraine. The region has a volatile and deeply bleak history as many Ukrainians acted as collaborators in the Holocaust by helping Nazis deport Jews to German death camps mostly located in Poland.
Yet it is Poland that has taken steps to rectify the horrors of the Holocaust by investing large amounts of money and personal commitment into remembering the tragedy that befell them during the extermination of 6 million Jews. They have also gone to great lengths to acknowledge and recognize the rich Jewish history that comprised Poland prior to the Holocaust during which nearly the entire Jewish population of the country was wiped out by German mass murder. In many ways this is due to its entrance into the European Union and the Western fold. Political and financial pressures spearhead social change.
Ukraine, however, has not undergone such changes. Instead, Ukraine has not openly acknowledged its collaborative role in the Nazi extermination machine and continues to trample on human rights and democracy by jailing former Presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko. Current President Victor Yanukovych, won his election in what most observers deemed falsified. Following his farce of a victory, he orchestrated the imprisonment of Tymoshenko under trumped up charges concerning shady gas deals with Russia.
Just a few days ago it was reported that the organizer of Kiev Pride, Svyatoslav Sheremet, was viciously beaten up by thugs during an attempt to stage Ukraine’s first LGBT Pride parade. This track record of racism, anti-semitism, and homophobia doesn't bode well for Ukraine. It begs the question: with all this baggage, why did UEFA decide to host the Euro 2012 in this troublesome country where the safety and security of our players are at stake? As a Jewish Russian who left the Soviet Union just on the heels of its collapse in 1992, anti-semitism and other forms of bigotry in the former Soviet sphere are not news to me. It is the response of the Western media especiallyhere in Britain that has been particularly upsetting and counter-productive.
The media portrayals of Ukraine, although in many cases accurate, do not paint the full picture nor do they help to change attitudes within the country. Instead of having our players walk out, we should use this as an opportunity to put the spotlight on Ukraine and speak out against abuse, bigotry, and repression in the country. We cannot run away from Ukraine in dismissal, but instead we must use this attention to put further pressure on them to act.