NEW YORK, Dec. 16 (JTA) — During the past decade, a tide of grass-roots anti-Semitism has accompanied the renaissance in Russian Jewish life.
In the past few years, this tide has risen, with an increasing number of anti-Semitic statements by lawmakers and high-profile attacks against Jews in the central republic of the former Soviet Union.
The reason for this dual escalation: an informal nexus of the Communist Party, local governmental officials, the Russian Orthodox Church and the justice and security apparatuses, operating “with complete impunity, sending the message that neither the central nor local government will provide for the physical or political safety of Russian Jews.”
That’s the conclusion of “Anti-Semitism, Xenophobia, and Religious Persecution in Russia’s Regions, 1998-1999,” a just-released report by the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, a Washington-based group that monitors anti-Semitism and other human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union.
The study, which is being released just days before the country’s Dec. 19 parliamentary elections, details anti-Semitic, anti-Western and xenophobic incidents throughout Russia in the past two years.
“The decision by the Communist-dominated Parliament not to censure Makashov” is a “trigger” for the increase in incidents, said Gideon Aronoff, the deputy director of the UCSJ, referring to the Russian Duma’s failure earlier this year to condemn Gen. Albert Makashov, a Communist legislator who made several public anti-Semitic comments.
These incidents include a series of attempted bombings at synagogues and other Jewish locations around the country, as well as the stabbing of a Russian Jewish leader in Moscow.
As a result, the U.S. government has pressed Russia to take a more active stance against anti-Semitism, and the report calls for the human rights push to continue.
We’re looking at a “phenomenon that’s exhibited in regions across Russia from one end to the other. It’s important that the federal authorities respond in word and in deed,” said Shai Franklin, the director of governmental relations for the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, who added that the current situation is not the “worst possible scenario”for Jews.
Russian officials have not been totally unresponsive.
A series of measures were taken following the incidents, including adding protection for Moscow Jews at High Holiday services, and some Russian politicians, notably Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, have cracked down on extremist forces. Earlier this year, Luzhkov banned a planned meeting by the largest neo-Nazi group, Russian National Unity.
Nor are Russian Jewish leaders all worried about anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism in Russia is not greater than in Europe or America or elsewhere,” Levy Levayev, one of the leaders of the newly formed umbrella group, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, said on national television last month.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently met with the leaders of this group, promising to assist the Jewish community in combating anti- Semitism, building schools and reclaiming former synagogue buildings.
But increased security has not been provided at other Jewish sites in Moscow or at Jewish locations in other Russian cities, and many local governments have either ignored or cooperated with the rising tide of anti- Semitism.
The anti-Jewish feeling has intersected with human rights violations and anti-Western sentiment as a result of the absence of laws protecting minorities and a sense that the West, particularly the United States, is taking advantage of Russia’s economic and geopolitical weaknesses.
The report cites issues that have created a climate of fear for Jews. Among them:
• NATO’s campaign against Serbian aggression in Kosovo led to increased anti-Western sentiment, expressed most fiercely by members of Russia’s extreme nationalist community, including the Russian National Unity group. Some 100 members of the group from the Pskov region volunteered to fight NATO troops, according to one report, and leading anti-Semites in the Russian Orthodox Church warned that NATO might attack Russia as well.
• Russia’s 1997 religious law curbing freedoms for faiths that have not been registered for at least 15 years. While not directed at Jews, the law has been directed at other religions, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists and Lutherans. In 1998, charges were brought against a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Moscow in an attempt to ban this group’s activities there, but the trial was eventually suspended.
“When the local bureau is beating up on Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Jews have reason to be concerned,” Aronoff said.
The report calls on Russia to rescind this law and introduce legislation in the Duma to restore full freedom of religion in Russia.
• Chechen guerrillas are targeting Jews for kidnapping in the belief that Israel and the international Jewish community will pay high ransoms for them. Current estimates are that about a dozen Jews are held among the 1,000 people being held hostage.
• The war in Chechnya has not only been a “bloodbath” in the breakaway Russian republic, but the war, in addition to a series of September terrorist bombings in Moscow, has exacerbated long-standing prejudices against people from the Caucasus, creating a situation in which dark-skinned individuals in the Russian capital — mostly people from this region — are being “ethnically cleansed from the Russian capital,” says Aronoff.
Observers say the war in Chechnya has contributed to the high level of ethnic slurs and incitement in the current election campaign, including a slur by the Nobel Prize-winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who referred to the alleged control of Russian politics by Jewish bankers.
One candidate made a thinly veiled anti-Semitic comment in responding during a debate to a prominent Muscovite Jew.
“There are people who speak Russian but don’t think Russian and don’t act Russian,” said Andrei Savelyev. “They don’t know Russian history, they are not of Russian blood, they are alien to us.”
Even more mainstream candidates are sending a strong nationalist message, which historically in Russia has often translated into anti-Semitism.
Whatever the results of Sunday’s parliamentary vote, said Lev Krichevsky, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Moscow office, “the message of ethnic intolerance is being spread freely and constantly to Russian households.”
The report is available at www.fsumonitor.com/99report/index.shtml
(JTA correspondent Lev Gorodetsky in Moscow contributed to this report.)