DONETSK (AFP) - Members of the Jewish community in the pro-Russian protest hub of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine said Friday that they were left shaken by the distribution of tracts demanding the registration of Jews.
Concerns were evident, despite scepticism from Jewish leaders in the region and a US group fighting anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League, that the pamphlets handed out in front of the synagogue on Tuesday were anything more than calculated "provocation" by unknown parties.
"One of the men insisted that we read some pamphlets that they had in their hands. We refused because he wouldn't remove his hood so they glued the fliers to the synagogue and left," said Leonid Krasnopoloski, 43.
Bearing the stamp of the pro-Russian insurgency and signature of one its leaders, they contained a demand for every Jew to gather at the seized local administration building on May 3 to pay a fee of $50 (S$62.60) to register or face the threat of being expelled from the region.
The incident happened as around 20 Jews were leaving the synagogue after marking the second day of the Jewish Passover festival. The three hooded men handing out the pamphlets were carrying a Russian flag and the symbol of the separatist Republic of Donetsk.
"I have lived here for 40 years without any problem and now there is this phenomenon of the 'Russian spring' and immediately problems are surfacing," he said.
Denis Pushilin, the pro-Russian protest leader whose signature was on the documents, strenuously denied that he had anything to do with the demands.
"The documents were handed out in our name but this was a provocation. My signature was forged," Pushilin said at a press conference on Friday.
Senior Jewish leaders in the region seemed to accept that the appearance of the anti-Semitic literature was likely designed to inflame tensions in Kiev's shadowy struggle against the eastern separatists.
"What happened of course smells of a provocation. As to who is behind it - that is an open question," the region's chief rabbi Pinkhas Vyshedski said.
But reports of the anti-Semitic tracts sparked international concern with US Secretary of State John Kerry branding the distribution of the pamphlets as "grotesque".
"In the year 2014, after all of the miles travelled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable, it's grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable," Kerry said on Thursday.
The head of the World Jewish Congress urged all sides in the conflict to refrain from using anti-Semitic propaganda to further political goals.
"All sides must ensure that any form of anti-Semitism is condemned and fought vigorously. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian Jewish community is caught up in a situation for which it bears no responsibility, and it needs to be protected against unfair attacks, no matter where they may come from," said WJC President Ronald Lauder in a statement.
Moscow has repeatedly levelled allegations of anti-Semitism at the authorities in Kiev, accusing them of being controlled by far-right groups that played a prominent role in protests to oust Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.
The Anti-Defamation League condemned "cynical and politically manipulative uses" of anti-Semitism accusations.