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Across the Former Soviet Union As Russian Jews React to Letter, Tv Program Heightens the Crisis

February 10, 2005
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Russian Jews are calling for action after 20 politicians signed a letter to the country’s prosecutor general asking him to ban Jewish organizations in the country as extremist. The leadership of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, along with the European Jewish Congress and the Conference of European Rabbis, will raise the issue with members of the European Parliament, said Mikhail Chlenov, the Euro-Asian group’s secretary-general.

Jewish groups may ask European legislators to blacklist the Russian lawmakers who signed the anti-Semitic letter.

Russian Jewish groups also may file a lawsuit against the lawmakers who signed the letter, which was condemned in a vote in the Russian Parliament late last week.

The steps being taken by Russian Jewish groups come as officials and individuals in the community consider how to react to what appears to be a revival of anti-Semitism, as exemplified by the letter and by public reaction to a televised debate that involved one of Russia’s leading anti-Semites.

More than half of the viewers who called the NTV channel Feb. 3 during a prime-time debate on one of the country’s most popular talk shows supported the Communist lawmaker Albert Makashov over former Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

Makashov, a retired army general with a history of making anti-Semitic statements, was among the lawmakers who signed the letter that generated headlines in Russia and around the world late last month.

Leonov, the first man to walk in outer space in 1965 and the commander of the Soyuz spaceship crew in 1975 during the joint Apollo-Soyuz flight, is not Jewish but was picked by TV producers to challenge Makashov over his anti-Semitism.

Throughout the broadcast, Makashov made anti-Semitic statements against Jewish oligarchs who, he claimed, had robbed Russia of its wealth and exert complete control over its economy.

On air, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress accused Makashov of violating Russian legislation that makes hate speech a criminal offense.

The judges on the “K Baryeru” program — a popular TV host, an actress, a poet and former NHL hockey player Sergei Makarov — gave the nod to Leonov, who spoke against anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

But the audience thought differently: Over 53,000 of some 100,000 call-in votes went to Makashov, whom the viewers found more convincing than Leonov.

The results of the vote gave many Russian Jews the shivers.

Vladimir Solovyev, the show’s host and himself a Jew, said support for Makashov could mean that for Russia the year now is “1904, the eve of Jewish pogroms of 1905, or it is Germany of 1932?”

Semyon Belenkiy, 68, a pensioner, said immediately after the broadcast that the international community should unite around the goal of saving Russian Jews and should help “every single Jew emigrate from this anti-Semitic country.”

One Russian Jewish journalist called on President Vladimir Putin to break his silence about the show.

“This show is a signal to the Jews, including those who had never thought about leaving their native country. It’s time to take our kids out of here,” Tankred Golenpolsky, founder of the International Jewish Gazette, Russia’s oldest Jewish periodical, wrote to Putin in a letter circulated Tuesday.

But some Jewish leaders were less prone to panic, at least publicly.

“That vote has nothing to do with the real situation in the society,” said Boruch Gorin, spokesman for the Federation of Jewish Communities, the country’s largest Jewish umbrella organization, adding that the vote was anecdotal, not scientific.

“The problem was the show itself. What it demonstrated was a total lack of understanding of the topic it raised, and of the people. To choose this topic for a show was a strategic mistake” by the producers, Gorin said.

Meanwhile, to the dismay of Jewish observers, the resolution against the anti-Semitic letter, which passed the Duma by a vote of 306-58, did not mention any of the legislators who signed the letter.

The declaration said it’s “particularly sorrowful” that the letter came as the world mourned the victims of Auschwitz in late January. While the letter’s authors later withdrew their request, “the simple fact of such appeals cannot fail to concern us,” the declaration said.

Some Jewish leaders said they were not happy with the Duma declaration. They believe it resulted from pressure from the Kremlin, which wanted to distance itself from possible accusations of anti-Semitism coming from members of Parliament.

“This was an attempt to put out a fire, and I cannot say a successful attempt,” Gorin said.

Gorin said his group — in partnership with its longtime rival, the Russian Jewish Congress — may soon launch a special community task force to better respond to situations like this one.

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