MOSCOW, Feb. 11 (JTA) A popular Russian television anchor recently asked his viewers if they believe Jews use Christian blood to make matzah during Passover.
The answers were split about 50-50, shocking the anchor. Perhaps a lot of viewers who don’t believe this age-old anti-Semitic canard had neglected to call in, he surmised.
Or perhaps there’s a simpler explanation that anti-Semitism is still widespread in post-Communist Russia.
In any case, two recent reports by U.S.-based groups charge that the Russian government is not doing enough to combat anti-Semitism.
According to a report released recently by the Anti-Defamation League, many Russians see anti-Semitism as normal and not particularly troubling.
Despite this, the only category of anti-Semitic incident that rose significantly in 2000 was personal harassment, according to the report. Six such cases were reported to the ADL, Jewish communities or law enforcement agencies in 2000, compared with only one case in 1999 although other cases likely went unreported.
The other report, released by a group that monitors human rights in the former Soviet Union, is harsher in tone.
Although the number of violent incidents decreased in 2000, anti-Semitism is gaining ground in many parts of the former Soviet Union, according to a report released last Friday by the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. Whether aligned with Communist, neo-Nazi, Cossack or Russian Orthodox groups, anti-Semitic forces act with “near-complete impunity,” according to the report, which looked at Russian anti-Semitism in 1999 and 2000.
Both reports agree: The Russian government does not adequately protect its Jews from anti-Semitic incidents, and may even be fomenting these incidents with its campaign against Jewish media tycoon Vladimir Goussinsky.
The ongoing campaign on embezzlement charges against Goussinsky, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, may be giving the green light to anti-Semites, the UCSJ report says.
Since Vladimir Putin became Russian president in late 1999, anti-Semitic activity has become more overt and active, says Alexander Axelrod, director of the ADL’s Moscow bureau.
The UCSJ report agrees.
According to the UCSJ, the main threat to Russia’s Jewish community currently comes from two sources alliances that evolved under former President Boris Yeltsin between provincial officials and anti-Semitic groups, and the growing power of the security services under Putin.
Putin has made several public pronouncements in support of Russian Jews and launched a campaign against hate groups. But his government also has suppressed the media, human rights groups and environmental activists, which could lead to a “partial return of the threats” Russian Jews “faced in the Soviet Union,” the UCSJ report says.
While praising the reports, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis disagreed with some of the criticisms they contain.
Berel Lazar, a Lubavitch rabbi, told JTA he thinks the organizations fighting anti-Semitism occasionally overreact.
Lazar, who heads an umbrella organization called the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, cited as an example a fire in a Chelyabinsk synagogue last year that the ADL report called an anti-Semitic torching. The incident was just an accident, he said.
State anti-Semitism no longer exists, Lazar said, and the Putin administration is committed to combating anti-Semitism. Lazar and his group have received Putin’s backing in their challenge to the Russian Jewish Congress to become the main representative of Russian Jewry.
Certainly, Putin used several public opportunities during his first year in office to stress his sympathy for Russian Jews. These ranged from his appearance at the opening of a Lubavitch-backed Jewish community center where he lit Chanukah candles with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to letting Lazar kosher the Kremlin kitchen before he dined last month with Putin and Israeli President Moshe Katsav.
But it is unclear whether these public appearances outweigh the government’s anti-Goussinsky campaign.