Recent events in Russia, including an anti-Semitic letter signed by 20 lawmakers, reminded Mirra Gitlina of a troubling time more than a half-century ago. “Of course, you can’t compare this to 1953, but I have to say that was my first thought when I heard of this letter a few weeks ago. Here it comes again,” said Gitlina, referring to a vicious anti-Semitic campaign unleashed in 1953 by Stalin that ended only with his death.
Gitlina is not alone.
The letter and the subsequent debate about Jews and anti-Semitism in Russia that spread into the mainstream media have triggered a sense of nervousness among many Russian Jews.
“Many Jews, especially the better educated ones, the intellectuals, the elites, are very much concerned by the situation,” said Boris Maftsir, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Russia. “It reminds them of the ‘doctors plot,’ of something that seemed to be gone forever.”
He was referring to an incident in 1953 in which several Jewish doctors were killed after having been falsely accused of murdering Soviet leaders.
Nor was the letter the only incident.
A television show last month in which callers supported a notorious anti-Semitic politician over his opponent caused some Jews to reflect on their own encounters with anti-Semitism in Soviet days.
Some shared their stories with the younger members of their families — something they had avoided doing before.
Maria Schneid, a 22-year-old Jewish studies major at the Maimonides State Classical Academy, a Moscow college, said her father told her recently how decades ago he could not enter the college of his choice because of his Jewish background, and her mother, who is not-Jewish, shared with her a story how her own life became more complicated when she married a Jewish man and took his Jewish-sounding last name.
“To me this whole story was a shock,” Schneid said of the letter and the show last month. “I’m not afraid; I don’t think that something bad can happen to us — but to my parents this definitely had a different connotation.”
Despite some sense of a sudden discomfort, nervousness or indignation that many Jews share today, there are no signs of panic within the Jewish community.
“This wasn’t big news to me that 20 deputies signed an anti-Semitic document,” said Mark Goldin, the Jewish leader in Izhevsk, an industrial city 500 miles east of Moscow. “This is one-twentieth of the Parliament, and perhaps the same percentage in society in general share anti-Semitic feelings. “
Goldin said his community continued to enjoy “constructive and even relations” with the local authorities, and there have been no major anti-Semitic incidents in response to last week’s developments.
But Jewish leaders in areas away from Moscow and St. Petersburg, like Goldin, appeared to be reluctant to go into much detail when describing the situation on the ground, apparently fearing that this might irritate the local officials whose favor they always seek and value.
At least three of the local leaders interviewed for this article said there have been many minor anti-Semitic incidents in the last few weeks in their communities. They decided not to publicize them to avoid “fomenting hysteria, and not to scare people too much,” as one of these leaders told JTA.
“In the current situation, if we start crying wolf, we will end up with people afraid of leaving their homes, ” said the leader, who asked not to be identified.
The Jewish Agency’s Maftsir said there’s been an increase in the number of people inquiring about how to get an Israeli passport.
“But there is no real follow-up to these inquiries” his agency has been receiving lately, he said, adding that some time must pass before it will be possible to see whether the community’s mood translates into higher emigration numbers.
In the meantime, community leaders are fighting back against the politicians who signed the anti-Semitic letter, which urged authorities to ban Jewish organizations and Judaism as an extremist faith.
This week, the chief rabbi of Moscow sent a letter to Dmitriy Rogozin, leader of the nationalist party Motherland. Most of the lawmakers who signed the letter belong to his party.
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, also head of the rabbinical court in the former Soviet Union and the Baltics, put together a detailed response to all the accusations against Jews in the letter.
Earlier this month, Rogozin, who did not sign the letter, asked rabbinical authorities to explain the basics of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, a collection of the principles of Jewish law. This Jewish tract was frequently quoted in the letter to prove “Jewish extremism.” Rogozin said it was that Jewish text that could “cause manifestations of xenophobia in the country. “
In his commentary, which was released Wednesday, Goldschmidt wrote that the quotes used in the anti-Semitic letter were either misquoted or taken out of its historical context.
Goldschmidt wrote that many of the arguments used in the letter were taken directly from a 90-year-old anti-Semitic manifesto that was compiled during the Beilis trial in 1911. That infamous blood libel case ended with a full acquittal of Mendel Beilis, a Kiev Jew falsely accused of ritual murder.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.