Jewish news rarely becomes part of mainstream media coverage in Russia, but a recent case involving an anti-Semitic letter was an exception. What captured the media’s attention was a letter that was rabidly anti-Semitic — even by Russian standards — allegedly signed by a huge group of some 500 “Orthodox Christian patriotic” people, as the authors wanted to be called, including 20 members of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.
The letter has raised the issue of whether anti-Semitism is again spreading in Russia — and how active the Jewish community should be in reacting to issues of anti-Semitism.
The lengthy document was published on the Web site of a small fringe newspaper, Rus Pravoslavnaya, or Orthodox Russia, and demanded that the prosecutor general consider imposing a ban on Judaism and Jewish community institutions in Russia, claiming they are extremist and anti-Christian.
To prove their thesis, the authors went so far as to accuse Jews of ritual murders and provided a long list of anti-Semitic quotes from sources spanning 120 years of Russian history.
The letter became a subject of widespread public debate, mainly because it appeared on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and because the authors claimed it was signed by a large number of Russian lawmakers.
The document put President Vladimir Putin in an awkward position, particularly because a few days after the letter was made public he visited Poland to participate in events marking the Auschwitz liberation.
Following in the footsteps of many international politicians in recent years, Putin told an international forum in Krakow he was “ashamed of the manifestations of anti-Semitism in Russia. No one has the right to be indifferent toward anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racial intolerance.”
Although Putin did not make any reference to the controversial letter, his Krakow confession was heard in Russia as a direct response to those who penned and signed the anti-Semitic document.
All major Jewish leaders — including the country’s two chief rabbis — were quick to condemn the letter and its signatories, and many mainstream newspapers gave front-page space to the story.
Following the media attention — and the reaction from Putin, the Foreign Ministry and Russia’s Security Council — the signatories promptly recalled the letter from the prosecutor general’s office, and all but one of the 20 lawmakers reportedly repudiated their signatures. Some even claimed they had never signed the document and were unaware of its existence before the public scandal erupted.
On the surface, the reaction to the last week’s incident was easy to predict.
Jewish officials and human rights activists were widely quoted in the media blasting the letter, and liberal mainstream newspapers echoed the Jewish indignation over the document.
And some Jewish leaders continued to call on the prosecution of those responsible for the letter even though it was recalled.
“A criminal offense has been made,” Vladimir Slutsker, the Russian Jewish Congress’ president, said on a radio show Sunday. “That the letter has been recalled in my opinion makes no difference.”
But major Jewish leaders did not respond when some top-ranking officials showed what some might consider to be insensitivity over the issue.
Vladimir Ustinov, Russia’s prosecutor general, said the letter should be seen as a manifestation of “kitchen anti-Semitism that is hard to root out in Russia. The main thing is that it shouldn’t go beyond the kitchen,” he said, speaking to the Parliament’s upper house on Jan. 26.
Ustinov said the topic of anti-Semitism was not worth debating, claiming that “the more we talk, the bigger the interest is toward this topic.”
It took Israel’s ambassador to Moscow, Arkadi Milman, to respond to this remark. Speaking the following day at the Holocaust Day memorial event in Moscow on Jan. 27, Milman said that to go along “with kitchen anti-Semitism in the hope that it remains under control would be the same thing as to agree with kitchen cannibalism hoping that this way it doesn’t go out of control.”
While the origins of the controversial letter still remain obscure, theories abound.
Stanislav Belkovsky, a Jewish political analyst, wrote an article that appeared on a popular Web news portal, lenta.ru, and was widely circulated among Russian-speaking Jewish Web surfers.
In his article, Belkovsky suggested that the letter was concocted within Putin’s administration in order to harm the reputations of left-wing opposition lawmakers.
All 20 lawmakers who reportedly signed the letter were members of the two Duma factions, the Motherland and the Communists, that were highly critical of the federal government’s handling of social reforms.
Belkovsky said the letter was intended to show the West that any successor to Putin would be worse than the incumbent.
Most Jewish leaders refused to speculate on the conspiracy theories, but Slutsker said that if the letter was indeed a provocation, it was aimed against Putin himself.
But some Jews disagreed, saying the general atmosphere of Putin’s regime made any scenario look possible.
The idea of Jewish collective guilt is “quite close to the people, and can be used by the FSB, despite the sad historical precedents,” wrote political columnist Leonid Radzikhovsky. The commentary, published in the Moscow weekly Jewish Word, referred to the Federal Security Bureau, a successor to the Soviet-era KGB. The FSB is widely seen as gaining power under Putin, an ex-KGB man.
“I’m afraid we don’t know the truth in this story, and may never find it out,” said Maksim Kagan, a doctoral student in mathematics, while spending Sunday night at a Moscow club that was hosting a show by an Israeli rock group. “But the fact that a Jewish issue may have been used intentionally for some political purpose should in itself be a reason for concern.”
“Take Chechnya, or Yukos or Beslan. In none of these stories I have a sense we were told the truth,” he said, echoing a widespread attitude among many Russians that during Putin’s rule the state-controlled media, especially television, has returned somewhat to the Soviet practice of reporting only one officially approved point of view on major developments.
After recent news stories on high-profile cases of anti-Semitic violence in Moscow, some Jews say they are scared.
“I’m afraid to think that every third individual in my country is an anti-Semite,” said a middle-aged Jewish woman at a Moscow Jewish community center.
She was speaking Monday night after a popular Moscow radio station conducted a call-in poll asking the listeners whether they believed that Jews’ participation in politics and business should be limited by the law: Thirty percent of 6,327 callers said “yes.”
Some Jews, especially the younger generation, say it’s time for Russian Jews to become more proactive when it comes to issues of Jewish concern.
“Shall we become as active as Jews in many other countries?” asked Beata Istakharova, a young Orthodox Jewish woman from Moscow, addressing a group of young Jewish professionals who gathered last week in a Moscow restaurant to celebrate the festival of Tu B’Shevat.
She said “as a Jew, as a mother” she was concerned by the anti-Semitic attacks, both verbal and physical, that took place in recent weeks in Russia. “Maybe it’s time for us to decide whether we should be more vocal when it comes to issues that we talk so much about when we get together.”
Only a couple of people among the three dozen Jews in the group agreed with her.
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.