MOSCOW (Feb. 21)
The recent upsurge of anti-Semitism in Russia has sown the seeds of fear and uncertainty among much of the country’s Jewish community.
Although different segments of the community may vary in their assessment of the situation, most Jews here agree on one point: They are living through one of the most crucial periods since the fall of communism seven years ago.
An unstable political situation — fed by persistent reports of President Boris Yeltsin’s failing health — coupled with a steadily worsening economic climate has led Russian nationalist leaders to blame Jews for society’s ills.
Anti-Semitism is being employed by both the political left — represented by the Communist Party and its allies — and by far-right groups such as the neo- Nazi Russian National Unity movement.
It is not coincidental that this climate has prompted an increase in the rate of aliyah among Russian Jewry, which now numbers by various estimates between 450,00 and 600,000.
During the past three months, there has been an 80 percent increase in the number of people emigrating over the same period a year ago, according to Alla Levy, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Russian office.
This increase took place across Russia, according to Jewish officials all over the country. And they attribute it to the combination of two factors: the economy and growing anti-Semitism.
Among these officials is Vladimir Boroditzky, a community leader in Bryansk, a city in central Russia. Like other Jewish leaders, he could not say with certainty which factor predominates in people’s decision to emigrate.
Just the same, he adds, “There is a sense of fear, and it has become stronger.”
Older Jews — those who remember the anti-Semitic campaigns of the 1940s and 1950s — have an especially uneasy feeling about the current wave of anti- Semitism.
“These people survived Stalinist anti-Semitism,” says Pinchas Goldschmidt, Moscow’s chief rabbi. While noting that there are few similarities between today and what they experienced 50 years ago, he adds, “They are worried.”
Younger Jews, especially those who take part in the life of the community, say they feel heightened societal tensions. But they are generally less inclined than their elders to overdramatize the situation.
Zhenya Mikhaleva, director of the Moscow Hillel, says her group’s activists have all noticed an increase in anti-Semitic comments both in school and on the streets.
“They are less scared than their parents, but they are certainly not happy with it,” she adds.
Says Tatyana Kaletskaya, a screenwriter, “I don’t see any specific evidence that anti-Semitism in daily life has increased dramatically.
“But the situation frightens me. Neither in society nor in politics do I see any real forces that could withstand this anti-Semitic pressure if the situation worsens.”
Whatever the generational reaction may be, it is clear that growing anti- Semitism is affecting the daily life of Russian Jews, both in Moscow and in the provincial communities.
Jewish officials say that anti-Semitism — espoused by lawmakers in Parliament, in the mass media and at mass rallies — has created a darkened climate for the Jewish community, especially outside Moscow.
Though there have been few reports in recent months of violent attacks against Jews, they are more often exposed to verbal abuse, according to Jewish leaders.
“People are being screamed at on the streets, harassed much more than before,” says Goldschmidt. “I can feel it myself, especially when I walk on Shabbat.”
Many ordinary Jews, particularly those who remember Soviet-era anti-Semitism, say the community and its leaders should keep a low profile to avoid escalating tensions.
And some Jews here maintain that journalists are to blame, saying the situation would be less fraught with tension if they devoted less coverage to the anti- Semitism of the Communists and ultranationalists.
A Jewish member of Parliament also blamed journalists for being sensational in their coverage of anti-Semitism.
“Much of the situation has been created by the mass media themselves,” says Viktor Sheinis, a 66-year-old Jewish member of the state Duma, the lower house of Parliament.
“Whenever I see a crowd of journalists in the Duma corridors, I can be quite sure they clustered” around Communist lawmaker Albert Makashov, who stirred controversy last fall with a series of anti-Semitic diatribes.
Many believe that the anti-Semitism of some prominent politicians has gotten ordinary Russians to feel free to unleash their own deep-seated anti-Semitism.
“Some people think: `If a lawmaker can say this and go unpunished, why can’t we say the same?’” says Viktor Shapiro, leader of the Jewish community in Russia’s Baltic port of Kaliningrad.
Some observers are concerned that an already difficult situation will deteriorate further if there are no improvements in the Russian economy in the near future.
“People on the street don’t care much about what anti-Semitic politicians say,” says Alexander Sakov, editor of Shalom, a monthly newspaper in the Siberian city of Omsk that covers Jewish life throughout Siberia and the Far East.
“But when people go unpaid for months, they are looking for a convenient scapegoat. People are tired, but if they have jobs and get their salaries on time, they will look at things differently.”
Despite the current climate, Jewish organizations throughout the country continue to operate freely, and there have been no reports of any group curtailing its activities.
But some Jewish leaders say communal life has nonetheless undergone a visible change in the last several months.
“Anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi activities have in a way succeeded in lowering the profile of Jewish life” in Russia, says Michael Steiner, director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Moscow office.
Just the same, several high-profile community projects have recently been launched.
Last week, the Russian Jewish Congress launched a $10 million project to construct a community center in downtown Moscow across from the city’s Choral Synagogue.
Another community center, being built at a cost of $7 million by the Lubavitch movement, is slated to be completed later this year.
Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad, a Jewish umbrella group, sees an irony in the present anti-Semitic climate.
“The current crisis may strengthen certain forms of Jewish life,” he says. “There may be fewer high-profile projects — such as huge presentations and shows — and more concrete smaller projects.”
“The situation is not irreversibly negative. These difficulties may serve as a unifying factor for various Jewish groups, which often compete with each other, especially in the provinces.”
As Russian Jews confront a difficult set of circumstances, he adds, the community now needs two things: confidence and a clear vision of its future.