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‘we Are Returning to Our Roots,’ Says Group Monitoring Rights in FSU

A group that monitors human rights in the former Soviet Union is stepping up its activities.

The Union of Councils for Jews in the FSU, formerly known as the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, is increasing the number of its bureaus in Russia alone to more than 40.

The group also held a two-day seminar in Moscow last week to train 50 human rights activists from across Russia in monitoring anti-Semitism and advocating for human rights.

Officials say the purpose of the increased activity is twofold: To improve the quality of the group’s monitoring and to increase local protection of human rights for Jews and others.

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “overtures to the Jews, next to nothing has being done as yet to transfer his words into combating anti-Semitism” in provincial areas, said Micah Naftalin, the organization’s national director.

“We are, in fact, returning to our roots,” Naftalin said.

In the early 1970s, the group specialized in campaigns to enable thousands of refuseniks to get the necessary emigration papers. At the time, the group stressed it worked on behalf of all Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union — both those who wanted to move to Israel and those who wanted eventually to use the documents to move to the United States.

This stance created friction with other, more Zionist-oriented organizations that demanded that invitations and visas for Israel be given only to those who really planned to go to Israel.

Even after the Soviet Union opened its doors to Jewish emigration in the late 1980s, the Union of Councils stayed active in the region — in part because anti-Semitism and human rights violations persisted.

Indeed, according to the group’s latest report, anti-Semitism and xenophobia remain major issues in Russian civil society: The number of the most violent incidents declined in 2000, but Jews still face hatred, both at official and grass-roots levels. In addition, local officials in many places have allied with anti-Semitic Communist, neo-Nazi and Russian Orthodox officials.

The Union’s work has included:

monitoring the case of Dmitry Neverovsky, a Jew jailed for being a conscientious objector;

helping to acquit Alexander Nikitin, a non-Jewish environmental activist accused of transmitting Russian nuclear U-boat secrets; and

backing Reform Jewish congregations denied the right to register with local authorities in Minsk, Belarus.

The Union of Councils has the best human rights monitoring system in the region, said Ludmila Alexeeva, a leader of the Moscow Helsinki human rights group. In the Central Asia, for example, the Union today has the only monitoring network.

But some Russian Jewish officials downplay the group’s role.

Alexander Axelrod of the Anti-Defamation League’s Moscow office — who recently has been lobbying for anti-xenophobic legislation in the State Duma — says the Union focuses too much on monitoring instead of taking action.

The group’s new efforts appear to be geared toward addressing that criticism.

“The idea is that our people go to a local mayor or governor and tell him, Look, do you know what is happening in your city? Do you think they will like it in the Kremlin or abroad?” said Leonid Stonov, the Chicago-based Director of International Bureaus and Activities for the group.

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