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Around the Jewish World Debate Continues in Russia on the State of Anti-semitism

December 12, 2006
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Despite numerous reports of anti-Semitic attacks, those who monitor the situation say things haven’t worsened for Jews in Russia in 2006. But some leading figures in the Jewish community disagree. Recent decisions in Russian courts against hate-crime perpetrators have encouraged some Jewish leaders. But does the increased crackdown on hate crimes also indicate an increase in anti-Semitic attacks?

“We cannot speak of a rising tide of anti-Semitic manifestation” in Russia this year, said Alexander Brod, director of the Moscow Bureau on Human Rights, a leading group that monitors anti-Semitism and xenophobia. “The number of incidents remains at the level of the last three to four years, meaning that each month there are three or four cases of anti-Semitism in different parts” of the country.

However, Vyacheslav “Moshe” Kantor, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, said in September that the number of physical attacks on Jews is growing by 10 percent a year. And a spokesman for a leading Jewish religious umbrella organization said the number of anti-Semitic crimes was higher in 2006.

“There is an impression of a growing number of anti-Semitic attacks,” said Vladimir Pliss of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Communities of Russia, or KEROOR.

Russian authorities do not have a separate statistic for crimes motivated by anti-Semitism, which officially fall under the rubric of hate crimes or sometimes into a broader category of extremism-related crimes. That includes manifestations of political radicalism.

Speaking last month in the Russian Parliament, Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika said that since the beginning of the year, there were 232 reported hate crimes in the country. These include racially motivated murders and other grave crimes, he said.

During the same period, the Internal Ministry said, there were 185 cases of extremism-related crimes, a rise of 46 percent from 2005.

One reason the Jewish community remains relatively calm is that it believes Jews no longer are the primary targets of hate crimes, as they were in earlier periods of Russian history.

Non-Slavic nationals from the former Soviet republics and foreigners from African and Asian countries are believed to be the main magnets of xenophobes.

The Sova think tank in Moscow believes the number of hate crimes, including anti-Semitic attacks, is increasing in Russia by 30 percent a year. But the growth is thought to be connected to more crimes against Muslims, the most frequent targets of hate crimes in recent years, who greatly outnumber Jews in Russia.

According to Sova, 39 people have died in hate crimes this year, 28 of them in Moscow, and more than 300 have been injured. Almost all of the victims were from the Caucasus and Central Asian states and from developing nations.

But the Jewish community has reason to be concerned. Last month, the Federation of Jewish Communities, Russia’s largest Jewish group, called on authorities to ensure the safety of Jewish institutions in the provinces after four Jewish centers across Russia were attacked this fall.

No one was injured in the attacks in Astrakhan, Khabarovsk, Surgut and Vladivostok, but the geographical range of the attacks — from the Russian South to Siberia in the Far East — provided some anxiety.

Pliss said anti-Semitic incidents mainly were spontaneous acts caused by economic and social issues, as well as the lack of a unifying idea that has yet to fill an ideological vacuum in post-Soviet Russia.

“This is the growth pains of Russian ethnic self-identification,” Pliss said. “I hope this is a temporary phenomenon.”

In any event, there’s little the Jewish community can do about anti-Semitism unless authorities begin to acknowledge that the issue is threatening Russian society as a whole, he said.

Some see a positive change in that regard. The Russian Supreme Court last week upheld a 16-year prison term given to a man who stabbed and injured nine people in a Moscow synagogue in January. Also last week, a court in the Russian Far East sentenced two teenagers to 10 and nine and a half years in prison for the racially motivated murder of three men of non-Slavic origin, including one Jew.

The long prison term for the Moscow synagogue attacker — who received an even stiffer sentence than some Russians found guilty of first-degree murder — may indicate that authorities are overcoming their trend of ignoring hate-based motivation in many crimes against minorities.

Speaking at the state Duma last month, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said Parliament must impose tougher punishments on extremists if it wants to crack down on crimes motivated by ethnicity, religion or political affiliation.

But political opposition leaders have accused the government of using high-profile attacks against minorities — from the murder of an Armenian youth on a Moscow subway to the firebombing of a mosque in central Russia — to push for laws that would outlaw not just groups that carry out hate crimes but legitimate political groups that criticize the Kremlin.

Some argue that the government itself is fanning ethnic and religious hatred in Russian society with a poorly formulated immigration policy.

Last month, the chief of Russia’s immigration office said the government should not permit the creation of ethnic enclaves where foreigners outnumber native Russians. Konstantin Romodanovsky’s comments came after the announcement of a government policy barring immigrants from trading at street stalls and markets.

His deputy, Vyacheslav Postavnin, said the concentration of foreigners in any district or region should not surpass 20 percent of the native population, particularly if the foreigners have a different national culture and religious faith, in order to avoid possible “discomfort for the indigenous population.”

President Vladimir Putin has ordered his Cabinet to take steps to decrease the employment of foreign workers at markets, saying they’re crowding out native Russian producers and retailers.

“This rhetoric from above conveys a clear message,” said Yevgenia Albats, a leading Russian political journalist and a Jewish activist. “It’s only a matter of time before this kind of xenophobia begins to affect Jews directly.”

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