Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Focus on Issues: Anti-semitism in Former Ussr; Not As Easy to Pinpoint As Before

June 18, 1997
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Dealing with the situation in the former Soviet Union used to be relatively simple.

Few doubted the discrimination and peril faced by Soviet Jews, and the worldwide Jewish goal was to help as many as possible emigrate.

In the chaos of the post-Soviet days, however, the causes and the solutions – – even the extent — of anti-Semitism in what used to be the U.S.S.R. — are all up for debate.

The Union of Councils for Soviet Jews has just released a report, “Anti- Semitism in the Former Soviet Union, 1995-1997,” that it hopes will clarify the issue.

The report, some 250 pages long, contains chapters on anti-Semitism and related human rights abuses in 12 of the former Soviet republics where sizeable Jewish populations exist. Lithuania, Estonia and Armenia are excluded.

Some of the report’s main points:

While Jews, in general, now enjoy freedom to emigrate and freedom of religious expression, anti-Semitic acts are still widespread;

Despite official rhetoric, governments in the former Soviet Union fail to combat anti-Semitism effectively; and in some cases, they encourage it;

Anti-Semitism and other crimes that violate human rights are difficult to prosecute because laws are unevenly enforced; and

The Clinton administration should press governments in the former Soviet Union to budget resources for education and to link trade policy to improved human rights in these areas.

The UCSJ decided to undertake the project, said the group’s president, Yosef Abramowitz, because it believed that both American Jewish leaders and the U.S. government were not taking anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union “seriously enough.”

The group also hopes to pressure Congress to keep open refugee slots for Jews who want to emigrate from the former Soviet Union and to provide evidence for those currently seeking asylum in the United States.

The just-published report documents anti-Semitic and human rights abuses, describing extremist groups, crimes against individuals, anti-Semitic statements by political leaders, attacks on Jewish communal property and anti- Semitic publications that have taken place during the past few years.

The report quotes one Western expert as saying that “the threat of anti- Semitism in the post-Soviet states is greater today than it has been at many point in the last decade.”

Local Jewish activists who are involved in monitoring anti-Semitism, however, differed over the accuracy of the UCSJ’s assessment.

“Anti-Semitism still remains the major concern of Russian Jews,” said Mark Krasnoselsky, head of the Center for Monitoring Anti-Semitism of the Va’ad, the umbrella group for Jewish organizations in Russia.

According to President Boris Yeltsin’s Judicial Chamber on Information Disputes, in Russia alone there are about 130 periodicals that regularly print ultranationalist and anti-Semitic articles.

But the executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress, Alexander Osovtsov, disagreed, saying the situation requires a “more balanced, well- founded approach.”

According to Osovtsov, the increased number of anti-Semitic publications does not reflect a rise in anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union.

“What it does illustrate is the absence of any kind of censorship we used to have over decades.”

The lifting of censorship, he said, “resulted in the emergence of openly anti- Semitic newspapers and groups which we didn’t have just a few years ago.”

Other reports on the situation also appear to contradict the dire tone of much of the UCSJ’s report.

According to the section on Russia in the American Jewish Committee’s world report on anti-Semitism, which will be released later this summer: “It is encouraging that the increased number of individuals of Jewish extraction prominent in [Russian] government and commercial circles has not brought about a higher level of popular prejudice.”

And while anti-Semitism remains one of the reasons behind Jewish emigration from Russia, according to a leading Russian Jewish sociologist, “its importance for emigration today is much less than it was just five years ago.”

Vladimir Shapiro of the Jewish Research Center, an affiliate of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said an increasing number of Jews are leaving the country to reunite with relatives who left earlier.

Furthermore, recent public opinion surveys, such as last year’s survey of the Russian population sponsored by the AJCommittee, suggested that hostility toward Jews in Russia appears to be lower than enmity toward other ethnic groups such as people from the Caucasus.

There are two major reasons for the disagreements on the subject of anti- Semitism.

The first is that, ironically, in some ways it was easier to monitor anti- Semitism in the U.S.S.R. — which was state-sponsored and controlled — than it is in the post-Soviet era.

“The situation is more complex that it might appear on the surface,” said Michael Chlenov, president of the Va’ad.

“It’s much more difficult to watch 15 countries than it is to watch one bad monolith,” agreed the UCSJ’s Abramowitz.

The UCSJ report points out, for example, that the situation is particularly perilous in three of the former republics — the former Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and in Belarus.

The second reason for disagreement is that the root causes of current anti- Jewish sentiment are up for debate.

For his part, Chlenov said, “I don’t think that state anti-Semitism is present in any of the post-Soviet countries, while popular prejudices against the Jewish minority have a relatively limited base within society.”

The UCSJ report, however, contains examples not only of grass-roots anti- Semitism, but examples of communities whose Jewish residents have been discriminated against by local officials.

One such community is the central Russian city of Orel. The city’s and the region’s communist-dominated administrations connected to extremist political movements.

Semyon Livshitz, a local Jewish leader, said in an interview that Jews in Orel fear that “things might change for the worse.”

“Given that the present situation in Orel reminds [us] of the recent days of Soviet rule, many Jews are scared of expressing themselves as Jews,” Livshitz said.

Despite a Russian law calling for the return of religious property to its former owners, only Orthodox Christians of Orel have regained ownership of dozens of churches and monasteries in the last few years. Orel’s largest religious minorities — Jews and Catholics — have been repeatedly denied the right to get back their houses of worship.

The lack of an effective legal structure to prosecute anti-Semitism and other human rights abuses is, in fact, a problem throughout the former Soviet Union.

“Although both laws and decrees exist, post-Soviet governments generally display little will to enforce them,” according to an essay in the UCSJ report.

Jewish activists in the former Soviet Union agreed with the UCSJ’s evaluation of this problem.

“Courts and prosecutors in many cases are not willing to make existing laws against hate crimes and propaganda work. Incompetency of law enforcement agencies undermine all political statements by country leadership,” said Henry Reznik, a lawyer who chairs the anti-defamation commission of the Russian Jewish Congress.

Most of the perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts, including attacks on communal property and Jewish cemeteries, have not been apprehended or prosecuted. In some instances, no official investigations into such acts have been launched.

As part of its conclusion, the UCSJ makes a series of recommendations that it believes will help the situation.

One of its conclusions is that the Clinton administration needs to press the countries of the former Soviet Union to provide human rights training, monitoring and advocacy for police, lawyers and judges, and that U.S. trade policy should be linked to human rights improvements.

“Linkage has always been a successful weapon in the Soviet Jewry movement and now is not the time to abandon it,” says Abramowitz.

Some, however, believe that the situation will improve only after economic and political conditions are stabilized.

“The future of the community depends totally on the political and economic future of the Russian state,” Osovtsov said.

The UCSJ also concludes that the situation in each country needs to be closely monitored.

Despite the disagreements, there is general accord on this point.

“The threat to Russian Jews is still there,” said Yuri Stern, a former Soviet dissident and now a member of the Israeli Knesset. “Some political forces that can make use of the long-established anti-Semitic tradition are present on the political arena.”

“I’m not sure if there is enough ground for pessimism, but I’m sure the situation requires serious monitoring.”

Recommended from JTA