The Great Hate Debate


Leaders of the fractious Jewish community in Russia are taking opposing positions on whether a vote last week by the lower house of Russia’s parliament to condemn an overtly anti-Semitic statement signed by 19 of its members amounts to progress in the fight against anti-Jewish bigotry.Yet four major Jewish leaders — Chief Rabbis Berel Lazar and Adolf Shayevich; Vladimir Slutsker, president of the Russian Jewish Congress; and Mikhail Chlenov, secretary general of the Eurasian Jewish Congress — agreed in separate phone interviews that the recent upsurge of anti-Semitism in Russia is more intense than anything since the mid-1990s. They said it has caused deep worry among the estimated 500,000 Jews living in Russia.

Rabbi Lazar and Slutsker, the two pre-eminent Jewish leaders in the country, praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a staunch and indispensable ally of the Jewish community in the fight against anti-Semitism. But Rabbi Shayevich, a bitter rival of Rabbi Lazar, said Slutsker is “too close” to Putin to be an effective advocate for Jewish concerns or in the struggle for human rights and democracy, which many in Russia and abroad believe Putin himself to be imperiling.

About the Duma vote, Rabbi Lazar, a Chabadnik who has been in Moscow since 1989 and heads the most powerful Jewish umbrella body in Russia, the Federation of Russian Jewry, or FIOR, said, “There is no question this is a step forward. Much more needs to be done, but it is very positive the letter was repudiated by the Duma.”

Rabbi Lazar said Russian Jews are “certainly worried” by the anti-Semitic outbreak of recent weeks, “but aren’t running for the door. In many ways, things are worse in France and other European countries than here.”But Chlenov said, “There is a widespread impression among many Jews here that the vote by the Duma accomplished nothing, since it is now clear that there will be no substantive action taken against the deputies who signed the letter.”

About 500 individuals signed the letter, which appeared Jan. 13 on the Web site of the St. Petersburg newspaper Rus Pravoslavnaya. The 19 Duma deputies who signed were all from the Communist Party and the nationalist, pro-Putin party Rodina.The letter asked Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov to launch proceedings “on the prohibition in our country of all religious and ethnic Jewish organizations as extremist.”

Its publication and repudiation by the Duma come amid a series of events over the past month that have made anti-Semitism a hot story in Moscow. The events include the brutal beating of a leading Jewish religious activist, Rabbi Alexander Lakshin, while walking on the street near Chabad’s Marina Rosche synagogue, and two television discussion programs aired in the past week that allowed several signers of the letter to propound anti-Semitic theories to millions of viewers.After the first program, “K’Baryer,” a “Crossfire”-style debate, was shown Feb. 3, some 53 percent of the more than 100,000 viewers who called the station maintained that Albert Makashov, a Communist Party deputy who has long revelled in unabashed anti-Jewish rhetoric, got the better of his debate opponent, Aleksei Leonov, a former cosmonaut who denounced Makashov for ethnic incitement.

During the second TV program, “Vremina,” two other Duma members who signed the anti-Semitic letter, Alexander Krutov and Sergei Supko, asserted that the Shulchan Aruch insults Christians and demanded that the procurator-general investigate whether such incitement is taking place in Jewish religious schools where the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, is studied.All major Jewish bodies were quick to condemn the letter and its signatories. Several Jewish leaders, including Slutsker, Chlenov and Rabbi Shayevich, promised to open legal proceedings against its signers.

Russian Jews have complained for years that the country’s legal authorities are less than ardent about prosecuting purveyors of hate speech despite an article in the Constitution that makes it a crime to incite religious or ethnic hatred.

The Jewish leadership was relieved when Putin, on a trip to Poland to participate in ceremonies marking the liberation of Auschwitz, said he was “ashamed of the manifestations of anti-Semitism in Russia,” adding, “No one has the right to be indifferent toward anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racial intolerance.”Under pressure from the Putin administration, the Duma voted Feb. 4 by 306-58 to adopt a declaration stating that the “clear anti-Semitic intent” of the Jan. 13 letter “prompts indignation and sharp condemnation.” The Duma declaration said it was “particularly sorrowful” that the letter came as the world mourned the victims of Auschwitz, adding that the consequences of such initiatives “could be extremely dangerous for a multiethnic state like Russia.”Yet the night before the vote, Makashov staunchly defended the letter on “K’Baryer.” The show’s host, Vladimir Solovyov, who is Jewish, defended the invitation to Makashov by contending that it is important to expose the issue of anti-Semitism instead of allowing it to fester.

Yet Chlenov, the founder of the Vaad, the first official Jewish organization in the Soviet Union back in 1989, said the TV debate helped Makashov spread his anti-Jewish libels before an audience of millions.

“The fact that 53 percent of viewers felt Makashov won the debate does not necessarily mean they are all anti-Semites, but also reflects the fact that Makashov is a dynamic debater, whereas Leonov was quite weak,” Chlenov said.On “Vremina,” with veteran talk show host Vladimir Posner, Slutsker countered Krutov’s attack on the Shulchan Aruch. Slutsker, a wealthy businessman, pro-Putin member of the Senate and student of kabbalah, pointed out that statements asserting Jewish superiority to non-Jews in the ancient text were made vis-a-vis pagans and not Christians, as Krutov asserted.Rabbi Lazar, who was appointed chief rabbi in 2000 by Putin’s office and is known to be personally close to the president, said he had “no second thoughts” about having presented Putin a medal at last month’s ceremony at Auschwitz. The award was in gratitude for the Soviet Army’s liberation of Poland, despite recent steps by Putin seen as anti-democratic, such as curbing the independent media and ending direct elections of governors.

According to Rabbi Lazar, “The president has been a strong friend of the Jewish people, and his statement at Auschwitz shows that he sees a big danger from anti-Semitism in Russia.”

As for Putin’s recent steps against democracy, Rabbi Lazar said, “I do not see myself as a political voice who should comment on every move of the government. My job is to keep the Jewish community safe and help to strengthen Russia-Israel ties.”

Slutsker, who took over the Russian Jewish Congress in October and has brought that body closer to the positions of Rabbi Lazar and FIOR, said, “I welcome the vote in the Duma, which puts it on record against anti-Semitism.”

A faithful supporter of Putin during his career in the Senate, Slutsker said the West should give Putin the benefit of the doubt on his steps to cut back on democratic expression in Russia.

“In the wake of 9-11, even the United States had to limit certain democratic rights,” Slutsker said. “Russia, which has far fewer resources than the U.S. and millions of Muslims within its borders, also had to do so. Yet ending the direct elections of governors does not impact the Jewish community. The real threat to Jews comes from Rodina and the Communist Party.”Rabbi Shayevich believes “there is a connection” between Putin’s anti-democratic measures and the recent anti-Semitic revival, and he criticized Rabbi Lazar for not speaking out more forcefully.

“Rabbi Lazar is too close to power,” said Rabbi Shayevich, who was Russia’s lone chief rabbi before Putin appointed Rabbi Lazar and began a policy of favoring FIOR over Rabbi Shayevich and the RJC. “Rabbi Lazar always defends the president, as long as he doesn’t go directly against the Jewish community. For my part I have criticized the president’s policy on Chechnya and the government’s cutting back on social benefits to pensioners.”

Chlenov, who believed the Duma members were encouraged to publish their anti-Semitic letter by the authoritarian climate created by Putin, said: “The reality is that there is no consensus in the Jewish community on the issue of authoritarianism, yet there definitely is a consensus on anti-Semitism. The Jewish community is determined to press the authorities to crack down on those who spread ethnic hatred.”