Miami Beach became one of the Jewish capitals of America thanks in part to the mass immigration fleeing anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe under the Nazis. So it's no surprise that when news broke earlier todayabout fliers circulating in eastern Ukraine demanding that Jewish residents "register"
with the government, switchboards lit up at local Jewish centers from residents worried about the implications.
"The situation has to be taken very seriously," said Rabbi Marc Philippe of the Temple Emanu-El synagogue in Miami Beach. "When people didn't take it too seriously in 1940, 1939 we know what happened...It's so eerie that it's exactly the same scenario that is happening over there."
Numerous news outlets reported on Thursday that in Donetsk, a city in the besieged country's largely Russian-controlled east, leaflets had been handed out to local Jews ordering them to register with authorities or face penalties like deportation or seizure of property. The demands are clearly a harrowing and explicit allusion to Nazism.
The leaflets were reportedly distributed by three men wearing ski masks and bore the signature of Denis Pushilin, the local pro-Russian separatist leader in the area. It seems increasingly likely that the fliers were the work of extremists -- not the local government -- as both Pushilin and Ukrainian authorities denied they were behind them.
Still, the reports were alarming enough to inspire international hysteria and a condemnation from Secretary of State Kerry and local politicos including Marco Rubio.
"I am also deeply troubled by new reports that Jews in eastern Ukraine are being told to 'register' to separatist forces," Rubio said in a statement. "This sort of intimidation and persecution is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated in the 21st century."
National Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, sent statements decrying the action but also stressing the likelihood that they weren't actually linked to the Ukrainian government.
"We are skeptical about the flier's authenticity, but the instructions clearly recall the Nazi era and have the effect of intimidating the local Jewish community," said Abraham Foxman, the organization's director. "We strongly condemn the anti-Semitic content, but also all attempts to use anti-Semitism for political purposes."
At the Temple Emanu-El, Philippe said he fielded nearly a dozen calls and emails Thursday from locals worried about the situation. His congregation of 250 families includes many people from Russia and Central Europe, he said, and at least one woman from Ukraine. Whether the leaflets are authentic or not, Philippe says, is beside the point.
"If it's official it's really bad news," he said. "If it's not official it's also bad news."
"We keep saying 'never again, never again,'" he added. "But things have happened to other people and it might happen to the Jewish people again in that part of the world ...
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We need to make sure to react and say something if, God forbid, something is even close to happening."
UPDATE: The New Republic is reporting that the rumored registration is not happening and that Jews in Donetsk have dismissed it as nothing more than a "provocation."