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Factors in Soviet Anti-semitism

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Modern day Soviet anti-Semitism is characterized by two basic factors: “anti-Semitism is in the hands of the state and can therefore be turned on or off at will; it is now more racially oriented than before and this prevents Soviet Jewry from assimilating into the mainstream of society because “according to religious and cultural views today there is very little difference between Russian Jews and Russian Russians.”

This analysis was presented today by Ezra Mendelssohn, senior lecturer at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry and Russian Studies at the Hebrew University and a visiting professor of history at the University of Michigan.

Mendelssohn was one of several guest speakers at the Conference of Problems of Soviet Ethnic Policies examining the status of Jews in the USSR and the impact of anti-Semitism. The forum, held at New York’s Columbia University, was sponsored jointly by the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, Columbia University Program on General Education, Columbia University Program on Soviet Nationality, and the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry.

Speaking to about 150 people, Mendelssohn presented an historical perspective of Czarist and Soviet anti-Semitism. Under the Czars, although conditions were favorable for “collective Jewish expression,” tolerance for individual Jews was very law as they were perceived as an “alien element in backward peasant society,” he said.

Jews also found themselves in the middle of intense nationalist competition, especially in the Ukraine, “the hotbed of anti-Semitism in the pre-World War I period,” which led to both social and religious anti-Semitism. Also, Mendelssohn observed, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russia was going through great political and social flux — a condition never considered conducive for minority advancement and or acceptance.

The Soviet period, Mendelssohn continued, reflected a reversal in Czarist patterns. The new Soviet regime was dominated by forces hostile to Judaism but friendly to Jews as individuals. A secular culture based on Yiddish was allowed to flourish, and Jews were in positions of authority. Class loyalty was the important factor, and anyone, regardless of religion, who exemplified this loyalty, was favored, he said.

According to Mendelssohn, this favorable treatment of “loyal Jews,” which allowed them to assume positions of influence and stature in the community, began to be resented and the Soviets feared a takeover by these newly emancipated Jews. The peasant and middle classes were not strong enough to resist Jewish competition and the Jew once again found himself as the alien to be feared. Since socially and culturally the Jews were much like the rest of society, modern day Soviet anti-Semitism had to add the new racial dimension to its policies, Mendelssohn observed. The purges in the 1930s and World War II brought about occupations that Jews were responsible for the social and economic ills in the USSR.

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