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Across the Former Soviet Union All Quiet on the Russian Front: Jews Reticent to Rally for Israel

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Jewish communities across the Disapora are openly expressing their solidarity with Israel in its war with Hezbollah, but Jews in Russia are keeping relatively quiet. To date, Russia has seen only one small pro-Israel rally that was held Sunday outside the Israeli Embassy in Moscow. That 50-person rally was organized by a fringe pro-democracy group called Russian Radicals, and not by any of Russia’s numerous Jewish groups.

How are Jewish organizations in Russia, where so many Jews have relatives and friends in Israel, reacting to the situation in the Jewish state?

The Federation of Jewish Communities, a Chabad-led group and the largest community organization of Russian Jewry, is organizing prayer services in support of Israel, and some of its local communities have organized solidarity with Israel events — all held inside synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Another major religious umbrella, the Congress of Religious Organizations and Communities, is following the same pattern.

The Russian Jewish Congress, the largest secular Jewish group, said it would organize a solidarity event outside the Moscow Choral Synagogue on Aug. 5.

A spokesman for the federation said his group did not plan any rallies because this was not part of the tradition of Russian Jewish life.

“We don’t have this culture of street demonstrations,” said Boruch Gorin. “Such things are causing a dubious attitude among our people. A street rally can help a group acquire a reputation in the eyes of American Jews but it can also result in a negative reaction here. What can be good in Los Angeles would not work in Moscow.”

But Oleg Ulyansky, a Russian-born Israeli now living in Moscow who participated in the rally offered a different explanation for the lack of public expression.

“Russian Jews are still pretty much Soviet Jews” and are still afraid to publicly express themselves on Jewish or Israeli issues, he said.

A Moscow Jewish journalist said the fact that Jews here have been unable to openly respond to the crisis in Israel is telling about the community.

“There isn’t any natural Jewish community life here,” said Anton Nosik, the editor in chief of mosnews.com, a leading Russian news site. Most Russian Jews “do not participate in the life of Jewish organizations on daily basis,” said Nosik, who, together with some friends, tried to organize a pro-Israel rally in Moscow, but abandoned the idea after this week’s unsuccessful rally.

“All our organizations have been created from above, not from below, and they are unable to respond to such urgencies.”

A small group of young Orthodox Jews in Moscow is hoping to attract some pro-Israel voices to the streets.

The group, which is not affiliated with any Jewish organization, hopes to attract some 200 people for its rally to be held on July 31 near the Israeli Embassy.

Members of the group say they feel an urge to publicly fight with what they call one-dimensional coverage of the conflict dominating the Russian airwaves.

“This will be the first Jewish rally, and then there will be others,” said Yehoshua Rappoport, 33, a Moscow designer and co-organizer of the rally. “It takes someone to set an example; people will start to wake up then.”

Prior to Sunday’s rally, hundreds of Moscow Jews who subscribe to two Jewish-interest mailing lists received e-mail announcements about the event.

A leading Moscow radio station, Echo Moscow, which is popular with the liberal audience, reported on the rally several times.

As the organizers said in their e-mail announcement, “Let the TV cameras show a crowd, not a dozen people with Israeli flags.”

But the outcome matched the organizers’ fears.

Some of the Jews who showed up for the Sunday rally said they were extremely disappointed by the small turnout.

“It’s such a shame,” said Olga Borisovna, a Jewish pensioner. “There are so many Jews in Moscow, so many of them have relatives in Israel. Why didn’t people come?”

Some blamed Russian Jewish groups for being too shy and indecisive in showing their support of Israel. “All over the world, these are Jewish organizations who organize such things,” said participant Oleg Ulyansky, a Russian-born Israeli now living in Moscow.

Contrary to what is happening in Russia, Jews in Ukraine made a loud statement of their support of Israel.

An estimated 2,500 people gathered in downtown Kiev on Monday, carrying Israeli flags and banners reading “Stop the Terror,” “Yes, Israel” and “Ukraine and Israel together.”

On the same day, some 1,500 attended a similar rally in another Ukrainian city, Dnepropetrovsk.

The rallies in Ukraine came in the wake of last week’s pro-Hezbollah protests that took place in Kiev and some other Ukrainian cities.

But Russian Jews say that after the mass protests that decided the outcome of the presidential election in this former Soviet Republic, Ukrainian Jews are now more prone to express themselves through public events.

The rallies in Ukraine are “a recurrence of the Orange Revolution,” said the federation’s Gorin. “We in our turn should work more to educate people and the media about what is going on Israel.”

(JTA corrrespondent Vladimir Matveyev in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.)

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